The new novel by the author of the 2016 Booker shortlisted Eileen is at once a jumble of influences — Oblomov by way of Tama Janowitz and Elizabeth Wurtzl, Bartleby with a touch of Bright Lights, Big City, a lunatic psychiatrist who melds Ayn Rand and William Burroughs — and unnervingly original. It takes guts, after all, to spin a yarn out of a rich Upper East Side orphan who decides to put herself to sleep for a year in an attempt at rebirth. Beyond the evident — the death of her parents, an obnoxious man in her life — precisely why our narrator wishes to shed her skin remains unclear to us; but her tenacity in pursuing oblivion is unshakeable.
At 24, she has already burnt through the beginnings of a working life in Manhattan’s conceptual art scene (for which we can hardly blame her); now, she has enlisted the aid of Dr Tuttle, whose eccentric consultations invariably end with the wholesale distribution of pharmaceutical samples, prescriptions and — most cataclysmically — an unregulated drug called ‘Infermiterol’.
Our heroine is pretty good at juggling the Xanaxes, the Ambiens and the lithium (do not try this at home) in order to maintain her preferred daily routine: sleeping, watching VHS tapes of Star Trek and Indiana Jones in her brief periods of wakefulness, and attempting to curtail the visits of her blowsy friend Reva, all tequila, tears and quick-fix diets. But Infermiterol induces a development she hasn’t foreseen: fugue states, in which she sleepwalks her way around the city, visiting night clubs, making impulsive purchases (a sweep of Sydney Pollack films and a Juicy Couture hot pink sweat suit from the Jewish Women’s Council Thrift Shop) and placing vast orders for Chinese takeaways. Imagine missing the high of a manic interlude but nonetheless having to deal with the aftermath.
Above all, Ottessa Moshfegh is a merciless comedian of vanity and frailty. ‘Trevor probably masturbated to Britney Spears,’ the narrator muses. ‘Or to Janis Joplin. I never understood his duplicity.’ She repeatedly has to remind Dr Tuttle of her parents’ deaths, in the end making up increasingly elaborate causes for her own amusement. Continuing the theme of self-love, an avant-garde artist claims to stick pellets of pigment in his penis, and then masturbate on to huge canvases, creating works with titles such as ‘Wintertime in Ho Chi Minh City’ and ‘Sunset over Sniper Alley’.
Moshfegh begins her novel in the summer of 2000, and concludes it in the wake of 9/11; it’s not hard to see the narrator’s rejection of the glassy, superficial life around her as in some way premonitory, an augury of the loss and grief to come. But to cleave too strongly to that reading would elide the story’s specificity: for all her wise-cracking, the history of parental neglect, bereavement and social savagery that has brought her low is genuinely affecting, and it’s hard not to endorse her desire to be rid of it.