Drop Out of Life: On Ottessa Moshfegh, Bojack Horseman, and the Convenient Label of Nihilism
For college-educated twenty-somethings, capitalism is no longer “in.” Having come of age in post-recession America, in which a former reality star is elected president, we can tell our economic system is broken. Capitalism causes not only material loss, we are saying, but also psychic trauma—and it is our responsibility to dismantle it.
It’s a seductive, empowering theory, but in practice, our most tangible acts of resistance occur only on social media, separate from the material world: hammer-and-sickle emojis, liking and sharing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez clips, semi-regular tweets blaming one’s daily inconveniences on THE HORRORS OF CAPITALISM. The truth is that none of our performative anti-capitalism makes any meaningful progress. If we’re being honest, we are merely lining the pockets of the assholes in Silicon Valley and embedding capitalism deeper into our lives.
It begs the question of why we don’t at least acknowledge our own complicity. Maybe the system has rendered us helpless, and maybe we’re just trying to approximate our loss of power. Nonetheless, I can’t tell if the affliction we are resisting is capitalism, or if it is actually the meaninglessness of modern life.
In her latest novel, Ottessa Moshfegh uses a bizarre conceit to interrogate this affliction. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, released this summer, follows an unnamed narrator as she quits her job and embarks on a mission to enter a deep sleep regimen. “My past life would be but a dream,” she hopes, “and I could start over…[after] my year of rest and relaxation.”
Her two tools: a nauseating mixture of both real and fictional sleeping medication, and an enormous inheritance left behind by her late parents. Drugged up and barely conscious, the narrator sleeps for days on end, waking from her slumber only to drink coffee, masturbate, and binge-watch Whoopi Goldberg films. Her Upper East Side apartment falls into disarray, and her supermodel beauty (“People were always saying I looked like Amber Valletta”) atrophies.
In recent reviews, My Year of R&R has been touted as a nihilist novel, one that advocates for the virtues of alienation. In the New York Times, Megan O’Grady calls it an “antisocial” novel, grouping it with recent writings by Helen DeWitt and Samantha Hunt that “flirt with nihilism” and address “a deep state of futility.” The narrator, O’Grady remarks, comes across as “Carrie Bradshaw for the age of big pharma…narcotizing herself with everything late capitalism has to offer.”
Nihilism is most commonly defined as “the philosophical viewpoint that life is meaningless, and the denial of the reputedly meaningful aspects of life.” If you read My Year of R&R in this framework, it appears accurate. A novel about a girl who decides to hibernate for a year must believe life is meaningless, right?
But I can’t help but think nihilism is too easy an answer, one that ignores the true critique of Moshfegh’s novel. The narrator’s reaction to late capitalism is, in fact, much different than her reaction to the actual drugs. After her parents’ deaths, for instance, she spends her time in New York City using her large inheritance to cope, which proves futile:
“That spring, I went for long walks around the city…Gray days spent staring down at sidewalks, skipping classes, shopping for things I’d never wear, paying through the nose for a gay guy to put a tube up my asshole and rub my stomach…More often than I needed, I’d get face peels and pedicures, massages, waxings, haircuts. That was how I mourned, I guess. I might as well have hired a prostitute.”
This is the grief that critics have construed, I believe, for nihilist ennui. Moshfegh’s voice-driven prose provides breathless forward motion to the narrator’s bleak, static interiority, as well as a compelling explanation for her motives. But is this really nihilist? Or is it a natural, logical response to being raised under the psychic trauma of capitalism?
The narrator of My Year of R&R reminds me of Bojack Horseman, a popular TV character who has also been deemed a nihilist. Among an animated cast of humans and anthropomorphic animals, the titular man-horse of Netflix’s Bojack Horseman is a washed-up Nineties actor who copes with his ennui in a more conventional approach: drugs, booze, casual sex, and secluding himself away in his California mansion. His attempts at reentering show business prove fruitless (a ghostwritten memoir, an Oscar-bidding film role), and the consequences of his self-medicating turn dangerous (assaulting the daughter of a close friend, Sarah Lynn’s fatal overdose).
Similar to Moshfegh, reading Bojack Horseman as a nihilist text makes a fair amount of sense. Online message boards and Buzzfeed quizzes have drawn comparisons between Bojack’s expressions of helplessness (“I’m poison, I come from poison…I have nothing to show for the life I have lived”), and publications such as AV Club and the New Yorker commend the show for “hiding a rich emotional life behind…borderline nihilism.”
Out of context, Bojack’s Season 3 finale quote “I’m poison, I come from poison” certainly passes as nihilist. Will Arnett delivers a powerful voiceover, imbuing a relatively unremarkable sentiment with the emotional particularity that critics have acclaimed.
But this quote corresponds to a broader character arc, one which resists the convenient label of “nihilism.” In Season 4, Bojack returns to his mother Beatrice’s former cabin in rural Michigan and examines the “poison” of his troubled family history in a series of flashbacks. The flashbacks continue as he returns to California and reconnects with the elderly demented Beatrice. By the end of the season, the source of Bojack’s intergenerational trauma proves to be rooted in something similar to Moshfegh’s narrator: the toxic materialism of late American capitalism.
The penultimate episode of Season 4 follows Beatrice’s flashbacks to her postwar adolescence. A conventionally beautiful Barnard graduate, she makes her debut in order to appease her wealthy father’s “old-fashioned ideas about how a woman [should] live her life.” However, she leaves Michigan for San Francisco with a sexy, rebellious aspiring Beatnik named Butterscotch.
Ultimately, an unplanned pregnancy forces Butterscotch to give up his novel and work at a factory. By the time Beatrice gives birth to Bojack, Butterscotch has become a semi-disabled philanderer, and Beatrice a depressed, alcoholic housewife, and together they abuse Bojack relentlessly. The American dream has crippled the Horsemans, both literally and figuratively, and in turn they cripple their son.
I watched Seasons 3 and 4 of Bojack Horseman in the last two weeks of June, then I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I was experiencing a bout of depression, along with a feeling of dread. In my four years of liberal arts education, during which Trump took office, my views on American life had shifted tremendously, as well as my sense of complicity. And now it was time, as a college graduate, to put those views aside. It is time to sell my labor, consume goods, and rant about THE HORRORS OF CAPITALISM to no one in particular.
But does this qualify for nihilism? Bojack of Bojack Horseman and the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation are negotiating a similar conflict to mine—either we participate in a system that has oppressed us and our families, or we opt out altogether. Maybe this is something similar, but to call it nihilism undermines the texts’ anti-capitalist message.
The inside joke is that My Year of R&R and Bojack are, in the 21st century, aspirational. It makes me jealous to watch Bojack haphazardly abscond to Michigan, or for Moshfegh’s narrator drug herself to sleep. I, on the other hand, need to find a job. Everyone secretly wants to drop out of life, but none of us could ever afford a year of rest and relaxation.