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Woman Seeks Oblivion: ‘Nothingness’ in Contemporary Fiction

How is our cultural desire for nothingness reflected within the growing depiction of women’s mental health issues in literature?

Image of the front covers of Everything You Ever Wanted and My Year of Rest and Relaxation with a glitchy overlayer over a desert background

 

When I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, much like the unnamed protagonist, I was depressed. However, unlike the protagonist, I had no means of escaping it. I did not admit it to my friends, or family, or boyfriend. I rarely admitted it to myself. Only sometimes, in the dark of night when I couldn’t sleep, an inner voice would whisper: “there’s something wrong”.

The novel focuses on a young woman living in New York, pre 9-11. She is wealthy, blonde, beautiful and bored. Unsatisfied with her job at a prestigious gallery, unsatisfied with the men she sleeps with, unsatisfied with the one toxic friendship that she has, she decides to hire herself a quack therapist and begins to experiment with a whole host of narcotics and sedatives to find which combination is the key to sleeping for an entire year. The book was equal parts draining and equal parts deeply relatable. I found myself smirking as Moshfegh dryly detailed her heroine’s disillusion with life. I had felt those feelings and seeing them verbalised felt strangely comic. Finding humour within my depression and sadness had become a coping mechanism; the proliferation of depression memes can attest to the morbid humour that has developed amongst many millennials and Gen-Zers. I often joked about killing myself, never really sure if I meant it.

'I love her lack of energy, go girl give us nothing!' Meme

I wished that, like the protagonist, I could sleep for an entire year. In fact, I envied the very fiction of this. I wished that when I woke up, I would be cured and happy and I’d never feel sadness like this again. Whilst I didn’t like the main character – she was cruel to her friends and strangers, unable to recognise and enjoy her privileges, seemed unrelentingly bent on self-destruction even when it felt like she had other options – I felt a level of empathy with her. She was seeking oblivion as a form of finding peace from the waking world.

I began to read Everything You Ever Wanted by Luiza Sauma in the January of the third UK lockdown. Iris, the protagonist, is in her late twenties working a job with an extremely pretentious title at an extremely pretentious London creative agency which helps brands appear a bit more ‘human’. She feels her life lacks substantial meaning – a monotonous routine of work, pub, drunken visions of her dead father on the night bus, repeat. This monotony, paired with mental health issues which she self-medicates for, leads her to jumping at the chance to flee not just London, but Earth for a reality TV show on another planet: Life on Nyx. Nyx being a new (aptly) pink planet found only accessible through a wormhole in the Atlantic Ocean. But there’s one catch – once you go, you can never return. Much of the book is full of sharp observations about our current existence, pertinently probing the paradox of the dominance of social media and the constant hum of loneliness. It spirals fast into a hallucinatory sci-fi parable. At the beginning, Nyx seemingly solves Iris’ problems, there are of course “no wars, no conflict, no climate change” to worry about. However, the pain of lost love and trauma is something Iris cannot escape and the promise the planet held quickly falls apart. We, the reader, are left questioning whether you would leave this earth in the hope of a better life and the confrontation that even if you did, it might not change anything at all.

During the period that I read Everything You Ever Wanted, I was perpetually anxious. I was constantly on my phone, looking at bad news, feeling sick at said news, breaking away from my phone, and returning to it minutes afterwards to resume the same cycle. I’d been unable to read books. I did not feel gripped by any of the sentences, losing track of them and finding myself having to start the page again. My concentration levels were low, yet Everything You Every Wanted broke the spell. Again, I had found myself compelled by the story of a protagonist feeling the same anxieties as me (minus those of which were COVID-related) such as the daunting prevalence of social media and the inability to find meaning within a culture so oversaturated with iterations of that very concept. Reading Sauma’s words, they could have been my own thoughts read back to me. These very modern anxieties are what push Iris, much like the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, to make an extreme decision to escape her current way of life.  

“Young people are trying to access a life which will satisfy them; a life which is, importantly, removed from mass consumption and embraces a slower pace”

Though the methods are different, both characters mirror our desires to free ourselves from modern life. Life on another planet, especially right now, seems appealing. However, Sauma’s wit lifts the book from, what could be, an overwhelmingly upsetting tale into a satirical critique of big city, millennial life within a capitalist society, whilst still creating an empathetic portrayal of mental illness and human suffering. This humour provides vital relief, unlike My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which although darkly comedic can sometimes be an unrelenting depiction of depression.

In their article, ‘How Nothingness Became Everything We Wanted’, Kyle Chayka writes of our “culture-wide quest for self-obliteration”. They allude to culture’s embrace of nihilism and our growing desire to block out, or no longer participate in, the accelerated, exhausting, ever-presence of the social world. Books like Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation – although set at the turn of the 21st Century – seems to encapsulate our collective desire to escape the capitalist structure of the modern world. As Chayka writes in the past decade or so, “Social media’s mantra ‘lol nothing matters’ was elevated to religion, the 21st Century’s efficient, ironised update to existentialism. Sartre thought action gives authentic meaning to the self, but these days we know – or fear – that doesn’t count for much anyway”.

The very inaction we seek – the desire to detach and disconnect from the anxious age in which we are trapped – is fulfilled in stories like My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The prevalence of the ‘smooth brain’ meme and phrases that proliferate the internet space such as ‘head empty, no thoughts’ reflect the increased mental health issues that young people face and the wish to remove themselves from those conditions which exacerbate them. From trends like cottage-core to increased interest in alternative forms of spirituality, young people are trying to access a life which will satisfy them; a life which is, importantly, removed from mass consumption and embraces a slower pace. However, as we know, it is impossible to imagine a world without capitalism, famously (as Chaykra also refers to) Fredrick Jameson said: it is easier to imagine the end of the world. Novels which seek such oblivion are indicative of this, or, in the case of Everything You Ever Wanted, literally leaving this planet for another in search of a meaningful existence reflects a fantasy that there is a way-out from our current system. Even if these solutions in these novels are entirely unrealistic and sometimes fail, the relatability (for lack of a better word) of the longing for change and/or oblivion is real.

Aside from reflecting a cultural desire for detachment, both books are also representative of the rise of a particularly sardonic feminine voice in literature. This follows a big trend including other books by women authors over the past few years. Freed from the shackles of creating likeable female characters or female characters with mental health issues that don’t fall into the trap of manic-pixie-dream-girl, it seems that now publishers are taking the opportunity to seek out voices who will tell the story of women who make bad decisions, are cruel or unkind, or who are unabashedly expressing their sexuality.

“Struggling under the weight of expectations for modern life, our heroines (or anti-heroines) choose to disengage; finding solutions for escape where there are seemingly none.”

Whilst Iris in Everything You Ever Wanted makes somewhat frustrating decisions, she’s not necessarily unlikeable; indeed the reader comes to understand her decisions and her stubborn nature. However, in novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, The New Me by Halle Butler, Topics of Conversations by Miranda Popkey we are presented with unlikeable protagonists. As Elisa Gabbert, in her review of Topics of Conversations for The White Review states, this recent trend of ‘misanthropic female characters’ produces protagonists who are “slobs, drunks, sluts, and worst of all, in the eyes of judgmental masses, bad mothers.” She continues that it feels like a ‘fuck you’ reaction to the “strain of critique that wants fiction, especially fiction by women, to present examples of moral living. These characters make you squirm on purpose”.

This draws parallels with the notable move in the world of film and TV to create unlikeable, or unfathomable, female characters. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag gave us a morally ambiguous, grieving woman using sex as a means of coping with her issues. The critically-acclaimed show gave the public a long-needed female character who was messy and made messy decisions, particularly surrounding sex and love. Fleabag was portrayed in the media as a ‘breakthrough’ moment for women’s representation in television; people raved over the relatability of Waller-Bridge’s creation. However, this representation was limited in that it was white and upper-class. Unfortunately, stories concerning working-class women and/or women of colour are less likely to hit the mainstream. Despite this, the desire for diverse stories concerning female desire and the complexities mental health is undoubtedly there. For example, Michaela Coel’s incredible I May Destroy You which was heralded by critics and audiences alike as one of the most important shows exploring topics such consent and mental health of the past year.

However, perhaps more interesting than this ‘trend’ of ‘unlikable’ female protagonists is that while the stories are being told by women, they in fact speak to a broader cultural ennui. Struggling under the weight of expectations for modern life, our heroines (or anti-heroines) choose to disengage, finding solutions for escape where there are seemingly none. We long for nothingness, or some sort of way out of our existence which has become so tiresome. Our intrigue, as readers, comes from our own desire for separation, making these stories, if sometimes unrelenting, impossible not to read.

I wonder if now, with lockdown easing, we will see a rejection of this nothingness. Or, if this nothingness will have an even more powerful allure. Will we want to return to the busy pace of our lives pre-pandemic? If the past year has shown anything, it’s that our systems are not fit for purpose. It would be easy to remain numb in the fact of this, but I don’t know how helpful that would be.

I don’t know if nothingness is the solution, if it can provide us with anything but futile respite. Sometimes the nothingness is good and necessary. Sometimes we need to put our brains on ice and decompress from our overstimulated, overwhelming lives. But we do not have options such as sleeping for a year, or moving to another planet (yet) – we cannot, inevitably, escape our reality. So perhaps, our cultural quest for nothingness can provide us with a break, but it cannot provide the real solutions we need. And while I don’t have the answers, it’s a relief to see the questions we are grappling with reflected and explored – without their realistic limitations – within art.

Written By

Rochelle is the co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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