Subverting Sleeping Beauty: How My Year of Rest and Relaxation Deconstructs the “Woman Who Sleeps”
Who hasn’t dreamt (pun intended) of setting their responsibilities aside to simply lie down and sleep off their problems, whether for an entire day, week, or even month? Ottessa Moshfegh's protagonist gives herself an entire year – a “year of rest and relaxation” – to regenerate and re-emerge, twelve months later as a new person, maybe even as someone she might actually like. The idea is not a new one – in 1967, the French novelist Georges Perec, in A Man Asleep (Un homme qui dort), wrote an experimental novel on depression, centering around a student slowly disengaging himself from life, simply deciding one day to turn off his alarm clock and never get up again. Yet, Ottessa Moshfegh’s nameless main character has the opportunity to tackle an even more particular trope in art and literature: that of the misfortunes of the sleeping woman.
Once you start to think about it, you encounter young women sleeping all over fiction. It all comes down to a well-known and loved fairy tale pattern: threatened by evil forces – usually a nasty step-mother – the princess, for her own protection, is deprived of her agency and laid down to sleep until a prince comes to her rescue by waking her up. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that we should burn down our copies of the Brothers Grimm’s Fairy Tales as a feminist gesture, and I do not think the influence that their stories have had upon Western culture can easily be simplified. However, we can’t really ignore the fact that iconic characters like Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are asleep as their own stories unfolds, lacking all agency.
This deathly sleep actually made their adaptations by Walt Disney in 1937 (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and 1959 (Sleeping Beauty) a tricky challenge in terms of script. The characters needed to wait for true love’s kiss to breathe life into them again, which opens the door to another presupposed notion: that a sleeping woman is a desirable sexual object. This thought is troubling on several grounds. First, it erases the very notion of consent from the love story’s equation. It also leads us to wonder what could be so appealing about an unconscious woman, besides her glazed beauty. The answer is insidious: the sleeping woman is by essence associated with the idea of vulnerability, and vulnerability, as it gives the viewer all power over her, is attractive.
So attractive that the trope has persisted through the centuries. Though Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm popularized many of the fairy tales that we know today, respectively in the 17th and 19th centuries, many of the stories originated in folk tales that survived through oral tradition and some written pieces. Sleeping Beauty itself is no exception. In Giambattista Basile’s version of the tale, published in 1634 as Sun, Moon and Talia (Sole, Luna, e Talia, part of the Pentamerone), the princess is not woken by her true love’s kiss. Instead, she remains unconscious as she gathers “the first fruits of love” and even still as she gives birth – in her sleep – to twins nine months later. Three centuries later, long after its popularization, Yasunari Kawabata pushes the trope to another shocking extreme in his House of Sleeping Beauties in 1961, a novella in which old men pay to sleep besides young, beautiful, naked girls, drugged to ensure that they won’t wake up. Few stories have made my skin crawl as these did. With this background in mind, it’s natural that the female point of view of a Sleeping Beauty narrative is a tragic one. I would argue that it can be perceived as such in Anne Sexton’s “Briar Rose” - one of the German names for Sleeping Beauty - in her collection of poems Transformations. The poem hints pretty directly at the idea of incest committed on the princess.
Ottessa Moshfegh's protagonist sets herself apart from this pattern: she is never a victim of circumstances but is instead an active protagonist in her own story. Her character is very much built around that of the fairy tale princess. She has much less personality than her closest friend Reva: she is never given a name or any center of interests. All the reader is allowed to know about her is that she is beautiful in an unspecified way; she’s rich and well-educated and she lives in a castle-like tower on the Upper East Side because she has been orphaned – a clean slate.
However, where every princess figure mentioned above was a victim of circumstances – a curse, poison, or a drug ingested against their will – Moshfegh’s protagonist is the one concocting a cunning plan to put herself to sleep for a year, with the help of a dubious psychiatrist. The reader is never made to fear that she might be the victim of assault while she sleeps. Moshfegh dismisses every possible threat, and even takes a dark pleasure in describing the way her main character deliberately ignores tentatives of seduction as well as beauty injunctions: the men at the bodega in which she buys her daily (or nightly) coffee quickly stop flirting with her when she presents herself without “moisturising or exfoliating” or even cleaning up “eye boogers and scum.” She seeks out every sexual encounter she wants and retains her agency as the story unfolds, an amazing fit considering that she is drugged through most of it.
The voluntary use of drugs sets a stark contrast with other adaptations of Sleeping Beauty. In a world obsessed with physical excellence, where a socially-defined “healthy” body – meaning young, thin, and able-bodied – is regarded as the most desirable object of all, there is something sacrilegious, as a reader, in witnessing a young, beautiful woman willingly give it all up. Reva expresses it best when she says that her friend is “squandering” her bikini body. Ottessa Moshfegh might have been inspired there, through her deliberate changes, by Katherine Dunn’s weird and wonderful 1989 novel, Geek Love, in which the two stallholders of a travelling carnival, Aloysius Binewski and his wife Crystal Lil, decide to breed their own “freak show” by exposing Crystal to various drugs and radioactive materials, hoping that this will affect her future children (it does). Despite its horrifying premise, Geek Love is actually a compelling modern fairy tale, where moral misery constantly verges on the fantastic. Likewise, the sleeping pills evoked by Ottessa Moshfegh and their clinical effects are never scientifically described in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and the most potent one, the Infermiterol, is actually imaginary. I would argue that Ottessa Moshfegh is heavily influenced by Bret Easton Ellis as well, a point also made by Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times – just as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho only finds pleasure in the enumeration of his luxurious possessions, our Sleeping Beauty relishes the list of her various medical prescriptions, and likes to speculate about the best combination of drugs to obtain the quality of “a good American sleep.” If this is a modern fairy tale, then, it never shies away from telling us the cost of an enchantment.
My Year of Rest and Relaxationis a polarizing read, written in a style that’s often sarcastic and at times nihilistic. However, it is undeniable that Ottessa Moshfegh has succeeded in writing a dark and twisted heroine that, incidentally, turns on its head the inner darkness of a fairy-tale motif, the innocent image of a sleeping woman.
Milena Glicenstein has taken on the dantesque task of trying to pursue the career of a national curator in France, a path close to academia, fascinating, exhilarating, and yet distilling its very own fragrance of hell. In the meantime, she tries to find comfort in softness, good books, and the beauty that surrounds her.