TikToks captioned #myyearofrestandrelaxationcore consist of slideshow images of lipstick-stained cigarette butts, lacy pink underwear, limp female forms slumped over bathtubs or beds and puckered lips glossy with Dior Lip Oil that flash by to the lugubrious minor chords of “Liquid Smooth” by Mitski. Sometimes an image of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is featured in these visual spectacles, and sometimes it appears only in their hashtags. Regardless, the novel’s aestheticized alter ego – the paradoxically grungy and glamorous “unhinged girl” – reigns as a cultural touchstone, even more than the novel itself.
“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is undeniably satirical, but it has not been treated as such by many readers. The nameless narrator, a moneyed, twenty-something WASP living in New York City in 2000, evades the world’s tribulations and her own visceral sadness by sleeping for a year, aided by a mixture of prescription medications. She is cynical, shallow, narcissistic and objectively insufferable, and yet she is compelling nonetheless. Her self-destruction is a token of her power and autonomy. Readers have fetishized this grotesquely alluring protagonist – who clearly suffers from mental illness – as an archetype of the “messy girl” that now rules Pinterest feeds. Moshfegh’s sardonic novel has ironically morphed into an aesthetic, the meaning of its content peripheral to its popular culture presence.
“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is one instance of a greater detachment wherein the social function of a novel is disembodied from its content. Celebrities parade the streets with books that complement their outfits; Barnes and Nobles nationwide boast adorned #Booktok tables; videos captioned “POV you’re hot” dominate the internet with their assortment of lipstick, nail polish, pearls and other stereotypically feminine objects littered among “aesthetic” books such as Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” or Sally Rooney’s “Normal People.” A novel is no longer for reading; it’s a complement to these hair bows, cigarettes and affected personas. A novel is a commodity, an accessory. The superficial image of a book is an aesthetic backdrop estranged from and prioritized over its intellectual content. This disconnect risks betraying the author’s intent, and popular culture’s willful or ignorant disregard for that original intent can be seen as a kind of perversion. There is little dialogue with the author or thoughtful engagement with the content.
Appropriating a mistaken image of a book is not deplorable – it’s better than complete indifference to literature. The aestheticization of novels is still a form of creative expression and, in fact, may be necessary to sustain interest in books. Talented and accessible authors such as Moshfegh and Rooney have fashioned reading into a cool hobby that an aspiring “hot girl” might adopt. #Booktok is one of the few ways in which we can promote reading in an age of dying print media. Beauty, aesthetics and intellectualism can coexist, but they should not be equally valued. It’s hotter to read My Year of Rest and Relaxation and to reflect on its contents than to merely imitate its disaffected narrator.