Endless television. Infrequent trips to the closest corner-shop. An overwhelming feeling of social isolation. Such are the dominant rituals in the life of the unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. A resident of New York at the turn of the millenium, she holds up a glass to our own current lives: her daily routines revolve around films set to play on continuous loops (mostly Harrison Ford and Whoopi Goldberg features) as she remains in her Upper East Side apartment, punctuating her reveries with a reluctant stagger to the sempiternally open bodega on the corner of her block.

So far, so quarantine: you could be forgiven for imagining this as the Corona-existence of a background Gossip Girl character, self-described as “tall and thin and young and pretty and blond”. The obligatory breakdown of her financial security and the nonchalance that comes with inherited wealth follows: “I wasn’t worried about money”.

As the equivalences with our locked-down selves multiply, the book increasingly becomes a touchstone for our current malaise, both socio-political and personal. Confined to the indoors for prolonged stretches of time, the protagonist –  a self-confessed somnophile – holds up her sleep as her ultimate freedom, wherein she can be “safe from the miseries of her waking consciousness”. In a period of incessant waves of news, breaking daily over our heads,  a reader could empathise with a desire to retreat, to withdraw into a liminal space of fancy.

A friend recently told me that, given we are forming far fewer memories during our lockdown, our nocturnal imaginations are being kicked into overdrive. We might not quite compete with her hallucinations; her dreams become increasingly fantastical, even before she performatively elaborates them into far more unhinged fantasies for her therapist. She dreams of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and discovering “an underwater village abandoned because its inhabitants had heard life was better somewhere else”; she imagines dragging her parents’ bodies down into a ravine, “watching for vultures”.

Similarly, her perception of the speed of time becomes hazy as she slides in and out of her sleep: days and weeks glide past with no perceivable interruption, besides an occasional bout of sleep-walking/texting/purchasing. As some may have recently found, our conception of time varies constantly, depending on our focus and mental well-being. In another novel fascinated with the nature of chronology and existence, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the point is neatly made: “[a]n hour … may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second”. Cut off from routines of work, exercise, and socialisation, this “[e]xtraordinary discrepancy between the time on the clock and the time in the mind” sits at the forefront of our understanding of the now.

Our current insouciant murmurings about the fragility and limitations of capitalism find an exacerbated counterpoint in the protagonist’s interactions with the art scene of New York in the new millennium. The artwork at the New York gallery in which she works, Ducat (itself a currency), is savaged as “canned, countercultural crap”: the narrator scathingly drags her eye across splatter paintings made from ejaculate, mannequins draped with flesh-coloured fabric, and a series that wraps up objects that functions as capitalist symbols in clingfilm. At each turn, the price is noted: $75,000 for a bloody rug, $250,000 for a pair of pornographic monkey sculptures that photograph the viewer.

Our protagonist’s disdain for this materialist, nugatory scene is palpable, her final departure from the gallery crowned with her excreting on the floor. However, our socio-economic reevaluations are simultaneously exposed by the protagonist’s lifestyle in isolation. Even as she tires of the materialism that surrounds her professionally, she still relies on her luxuries to see her through her hibernation: she indulges in fast fashion, take-away and cheap movies. Set against a background rumble of utopic economic posturing, her hypocrisies are our own.

Tellingly, her isolation is facilitated by her ready access to money. All her bills are on automatic payment plans. She is collecting rent for her deceased parents’ house in upstate New York. She has investments which her father’s financial advisor manages. She has money in her savings account. She has a high credit limit on her credit cards. There is manifestly no incentive for her to continue her low-paying job at Ducat. Isolation is easy when you have money, when you can rent out your parents’ house, when you can live on your savings for a year, and when it doesn’t matter if you forget to apply for unemployment benefits. As Emily Matlis reminded us last week, we are not all in this together – some are sunk far deeper into the realities and risks of Coronavirus, and this year will not be one of rest and relaxation for many.

Her enviably laissez faire approach to her economic health is only heightened by perhaps the greatest gulf between us and her: her isolation is self-enforced in an attempt to withdraw from society and rejuvenate emotionally, a movement inconceivable for us right now as we crave the sunlight. No pandemic has sent her into lockdown: her dubious therapist ironically raises concerns not over physical diseases being transmitted in public, but rather the “fact” that “a lot of psychic diseases get passed around in confined public spaces”.

Her evasion of public space is an escape for mental, rather than physical, health, and her emotional aloofness proliferates throughout the book, spinning out her life dispassionately before us. As we gravitate towards and bypass the ultimate taboo of sociability via Zoom, her drawn-out rejection of her best friend and her social solitude stands in direct antithesis to our conception of a ‘healthy’ quarantine.

Indeed, there is little to recommend her approach to self-isolation: she spends much of her year either drugged up on prescription medicines, collapsed in front of her television set, or overindulging in sleep. She watches her muscles wither over time – hardly an allurement for those of us looking to leave isolation with a slightly flatter stomach. For all of the ironic self-help assurances of the book’s title, one can only treat her journey as a warning.

Yet she successfully rejuvenates (at least emotionally), re-emerging from the cocoon of her bare apartment into New York just days before 9/11: hence she resists a simple reading as merely a template on how (not) to survive quarantine, or as some shadow of the zeitgeist. Instead, the book’s climax repositions her as a wider comment on the tension between the personal and the wider world. At once, her rebirth into the world is aspirational – she takes pleasure in lengthy walks; she enjoys nature in Central Park (“things were alive”); and she rebuilds her relationships. She is “soft and calm and felt things”: isolation has renewed her in ways which we can only hope for.

And then her blissful rebirth into society is aborted by the horrifying events of 9/11 – the world is forever changed, and the American ‘Age of Innocence’ dies before her eyes repeatedly as she rewinds the TV coverage on her new VCR. The protagonist becomes a cipher for human naivety and self-centredness; the expectation that life can now begin again as she re-enters the public sphere is cruelly exposed by global events. There seems to be some understanding that this will be it; that, post-lockdown, our newly bigger, brighter and better selves will walk blinking into the sunshine, ready to embrace the world again.

But there will always be something else, another disaster, a resurgence of Coronavirus: our short-sighted natures, so recently and briefly focused on the Australian bush fires, consistently fail to look beyond ourselves and the present. Perhaps we can’t. Perhaps we can only lapse into a further epoch of naivety, eagerly assigning the recent past to the scrap-pile of history, ready to spend and fly and ignore again. Or perhaps we can shake off our enforced slumbers and become what our protagonist treats as the ultimate fulfilment for humans and humanity at the end of Moshfegh’s novel: wide awake.