My Year of Rest and Relaxation

*This post contains House of Cards spoilers.*

There was a period of my life when men asked me out a lot. It was both flattering and a drag, because I was constantly on guard. A smile or friendly conversation could ramp up before I knew it, leaving me in the awkward position of trying to get away. On the other hand, it was nice to think I was noticed, when I felt I was still a shy, kind of fat, book-loving loner.

Today, that has stopped. I’m sure it’s for lots of obvious reasons. 1. I’m 40, so, gross. 2. I’m in a committed relationship, so that desperate energy one has when freshly heartbroken or searching is absent. 3. I talk about my cat, a lot. 4. Grey hair. Though that doesn’t always keep me from getting IDed.

The main reason, at least in my estimation, is a little subtler, but I think has great effect. I’m pissed off. Nobody, especially a man on a hunt, wants to encounter an angry woman in the wild, so they sense that energy, the brewing rage underneath, and stay away. And I have to say, I love it.

I could feel this anger bubbling up at the end of my last relationship, as I was struggling to “make it” in my profession, whatever that means, and was helpless against the obstacles in my way. It clarified a little more upon the realization that men who send dick pics as some sort of “enticement” also refuse to listen to you talk about things you find interesting.

As the anger crept in, a lot of men fell away; those who were scared would glance at me and look away quickly, that kind of thing. I realized I’d spent all of my teens, twenties, and thirties trying to make men feel good. Part of that effort consisted of putting away my reactions to things I found offensive, or boring, or obnoxious; it became my default mode: Make dude feel awesome.

Now, I still believe that one should make every effort to help others feel good, because the world is generally set up to puncture us every chance it gets, so that desire hasn’t gone away. However, it is replaced by my desire to live the remainder of my life more enjoyably, I’m not afraid to just walk away from situations I pretended were okay in the past. (I think they also call this turning 40.)

I turned 40 in a year when women’s rage was at a peak; I therefore felt rather entitled to my own anger and general sense of injustice for others, because everybody else was doing it. When I got past much of my own individualized, internalized anger, I turned it toward places where it could have a positive impact. That’s the premise of Rebecca Traister’s book Good and Mad, an examination of the historical suppression of female anger and how when deployed correctly, such anger can enact significant political change.

Still, any time I brought up the possibility that something was transpiring unfairly because of my gender, I was shot down by most of the men in my immediate vicinity, who said things like, “That happens to all women,” “That also happens to me,” “You’re not the first,” not only deflating my argument, but delegitimizing my experience. When this happened, I still got mad.

As such, when Robin Wright (aka Claire Underwood) slammed her fist on the table at the end of Season 5 of House of Cards, and declared, “My turn,” I, well, was speechless. Nowhere had anyone said anything that rang so true with me; it was the culmination of all her smart manoeuvres and behind-the-scenes plotting, building toward this moment, which exemplified my own frustration at my thwarted ambition and desire for strength and power.

Claire Underwood is arguably a horrible person, though no more so than her dead husband, Francis. Both are guilty of murder, both simmer under pleasant exteriors while planning the demise of their opponents, both stop at nothing to achieve unimpeded power for themselves. Yet, through Season 6, Claire is cast as the worse of the two, a woman whose cold, unfeeling interior drives her to do things no “normal” woman would consider, in the interest of complete control over everyone.


So of course, I eagerly anticipated the show’s return last fall, and while I haven’t had time to get too into it, the first few episodes were exactly as I hoped. Somehow, the script writers (and Wright’s performance) have dodged around this default way we characterize powerful women, making her totally unlikeable, and quite admirable at the same time. I confess that I’m in love with Claire, even though I couldn’t bear the way she approached her rise. In particular, the murder of her journalist lover went too far for me, but it didn’t stop me from wanting to be with her, to be her. She is in many ways a fantasy for all women.

Unlikeability is a common characteristic in many lead characters these days, not only for their potential as complex people offering intriguing plot lines, but also for their representation of the daily moral quagmire we find ourselves in. Many have written about this subject, so I won’t belabour it, except to say its manifestation as a naked desire for power in Claire is believable, admirable, lovable, yet it becomes more complicated when the unlikeable character simply wants to drop out.

As such, the lead character in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation is rather confusing. The novel takes place in 2000-2001, symbolized in the book most prominently by the departure of the VCR, when a beautiful, thin, wealthy young woman decides to drop out of life. The demise is slow, characterized at first by her nap-taking at work, her mounting hatred for those in the art world where she’s employed, and her general disengagement from all things social. She is, as she says, someone to be envied, what with her supermodel looks and vast wardrobe, but between her apathy, shitty boyfriend, boredom, and meaningless friendships, she can’t be bothered anymore.

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I didn’t think the book would stick with me as long as it did. After all, it’s fantastical; medications to induce sleep are invented, overprescribed, and dangerously dosed; she at one point completely checks out for several months, offering her body to an experimental artist so long as he keeps her doped. Meanwhile, her one remaining friend, Reva, keeps coming to check on her, and is subject to, between naps, derision and disinterest. The main character’s internal monologue critiques this friend in an abhorrent way, chalking up her preoccupation with fashion, bulimia, and celebrity to a valley-girl-like vapidity. While Reva’s complex, empathic true nature is revealed through the book, the narrator seems unable to recognize it herself, eventually casting her away permanently with a set of designer clothes to keep her at bay.

There is nothing redeeming about the main character, nothing to make you particularly sympathetic or attached to her. And yet, she’s a completely absorbing narrator, taking you into her dark world of pretty much dreamless sleep and brief moments of awareness. It, for many reasons, is an appealing response to a world that can’t understand women beyond their ability to please people and decorate their environments.

So these two creations, both of which recipients of attention and accolades, are quite different, and extreme, responses to women’s contemporary rage. While neither is particularly appealing if you must exist in the real world, the fantasy world they provide offer a much-needed outlet for women who are still plastering a don’t-worry-I’m-fine smile on their faces day in, day out.

If this is what 2018 left for us, I can’t wait for 2019.