American ugly

Paul Constant

September 11, 2018

Out of the last decade or so of debut American novelists, I'd have to say that Ottessa Moshfegh's voice is the most distinctive. From her novel Eileen to her short fiction, readers have fallen in love with Moshfegh's voice because she's funny in a dark way — or dark in a funny way.

But Moshfegh's sophomore novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is a bit of a disappointment. It's not the subject matter that let me down: the book is about a young wealthy woman who is trying to find just the right mix of prescription drugs that will help her sleep through a year of her life. It's not the humor that fails: the book is just as sharp-elbowed as the rest of Moshfegh's work, with plenty of misanthropic laughs (and straight-faced Whoopi Goldberg references) throughout.

It's impossible for me to discuss what's so disappointing about Relaxation without discussing the ending of the book. So after this paragraph, I'm going to do just that. The book doesn't end in a twist or anything so mundane — i'm not spoiling it so much as I am telegraphing the resolution of a theme. So you've been warned: after the break, I'll be talking about the climax of the book.

Relaxation ends with the narrator's best frenemy, Reva — the only woman who seemingly cares for our narrator, but also the yardstick against which our narrator judges herself so harshly — dying in the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. I don't believe Moshfegh means this to be a surprise; the book is clearly set in New York City, in the first years of the new millennium, so obviously the catastrophic event is on its way. And the way Relaxation's last few pages play out, with almost a countdown to September 11th, seems to be playing with the reader's pre-established expectations.

Moshfegh's choice to make the last scene of the book one in which our narrator watches Reva leap to her death out of the Twin Towers again and again is a perplexing one. It's not that I'm offended by the choice — plenty of novelists have used 9/11 to much worse effect. I'm just not sure if Moshfegh realizes that she's using a symbol that overpowers every other image and theme in the book.

By setting the narrator's climactic moments in the most traumatic event in recent American history, Moshfegh is retroactively recasting the rest of the book in a different light. Is the narrator's desperate attempt to hibernate supposed to represent America's sleepy approach to foreign policy in the post-Cold-War age? I hope not, because I think Moshfegh is a better writer than that. Is 9/11 supposed to represent a towering grief that dwarfs the narrator's own crippling grief at the loss of her parents? Because if so, Moshfegh does not convincingly connect those dots.

At this point in American history, setting the climax of your book in 9/11 means that you've written a 9/11 novel. It's an event so huge and so meaningful in the lived memories of the vast majority of the book's readers that it immediately transmutes the story into something fraught with personal definition. And I'm not certain that Relaxation is sturdy enough to survive a collision of that intensity.

If Moshfegh meant to write a Book About the Way We Live Now, she botched it. Instead, she wrote a novel about a singular, horrific day in American history, and she doesn't seem to have anything new to say about it. It's an ambitious choice, but I think Relaxation would have been stronger without it.

It's not surprising that Nick Drnaso's Sabrina is the first comic book to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Drnaso draws like a novelist: long portions of the book are made up of small, spare panels in which two people talk to each other in halting, affectless prose. If Haruki Murakami drew a comic, that comic would probably look a lot like this: flat, vacant, depressingly modern, oppressively lonely.

None of this is meant to be insulting. Sabrina is tense and unsettling and chilly in exactly the way it's supposed to be. It's the story of a man trying to help his unbalanced friend Teddy, after Teddy's girlfriend Sabrina disappears, and it's supposed to twist your stomach into a cold knot.

While the book doesn't directly take on 9/11 or the election of Donald Trump, Sabrina couldn't feel any more timely if it were drawn right before your eyes. Its main characters confront all the problems we see playing out in headlines on our phones every day: violence, fake news, toxicity on social media, a sense that the world is swirling around a drain. It's as ugly as a strip mall and as needy as the eyes of that lonely stranger wearing the mismatched sweatsuit on the bus.

On the page, the characters in Sabrina are about as simple as comics characters can get without being Randall Munroe's XKCD stick figures: their eyes are impenetrable inky dots, their mouths tiny little slits. They wear ugly shorts and generic white underwear and boxy military fatigues and there are no bright colors in their world, just purple-greys and green-browns and all the other colors you used to make with your first watercolor set when you mixed one too many hues together.

Drnaso in Sabrina seems to have accomplished what Moshfegh was trying to do in Relaxation: he portrays a particular American ugliness that arises from a particular American passivity. Their characters are staggering, bleary-eyed, through life with a hollow chest and a head throbbing with horrible images. They consume media, unaware of what it's doing to them. And they float through horrors without seeing any of them.

The difference, maybe, comes in craft. Moshfegh seems to be biologically unable to write a boring sentence. Relaxation is funny and charming and in some way, at its core, it feels like a work of decency. Sabrina, though, feels rootless; you can't tell if Drnaso is an especially funny person, or a good person, or even a thoughtful person. Relaxation wants to contain a certain kind of American horror and reveal it to us. Sabrina feels like a product of that horror.

Books in this review:
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation
    by Ottessa Moshfegh
    Penguin
    July 10, 2018
    288 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Sabrina
    by Nick Drnaso
    Drawn and Quarterly
    May 22, 2018
    200 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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