In Praise of the Lazy, Real Woman of Literature
Art by Kirsten Hemrich
I am tired of spunky heroines and one-dimensional love interests. I am neither of these types of woman, and it is not often that I see myself reflected in literature. This is because, like most women, I am anything but perfect. If I were to be a character, I would sleep until noon and sometimes say things I shouldn’t. I would, at times, not be courageous enough to say the things I should. I would procrastinate writing a paper and watch too much reality television.
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction, women are ugly. They are annoying and brash and lazy. They are, in other words, human. I read her 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation at a time in my life when all I wanted to do was escape into my bedsheets for eternity just like the unnamed narrator, who believes that sleeping for a year will rejuvenate her life.
Moshfegh doesn’t hesitate to make her women real. This is startling for those of us who have seen women through a male lens throughout most of our literature classes. Her novel Eileen, which won the Pen Hemingway Award and was also a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, is just as jarring. Eileen, her main protagonist, works as a secretary at a prison. She says unabashed things that many female protagonists wouldn’t say (“I suppose I may have been envious. No one had ever tried to rape me, after all”).
I also recently picked up Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends, and I was startled by the realness of the female characters in a way that was somewhat different than Moshfegh’s own efforts.
In Conversations with Friends, the narrator Frances is unlikeable, sharp, and cold. Her observations are wonderfully unfiltered (“When I couldn’t make friends as a child, I fantasized that I was smarter than all my teachers, smarter than any other student who had been in the school before me, a genius hidden among normal people”). She has an affair with a married man, suffers from endometriosis, and is frank about not wanting to find a job after graduation. She has sex without condoms sometimes. Her conversations with her best friend Bobbi (with whom she once had a relationship) are beautifully rendered social-media-esque chats. They discuss capitalism, their communist ideals, and whether love is socially constructed.
For the first time, I am seeing real, complex women in literature. Women with blemishes and flaws, snap judgements and drunk texts. The women being featured are not the beautiful heroine, nor are they the demure damsel. They are complex and shaded with ambiguity like most women today.
It is refreshing to see these women who exist neither to be the love interest for a man nor to forge their own destiny. Sometimes they wallow and don’t know what they want. These women teach us that is perfectly fine to break through stereotypes and carve out our own feminine identity, an identity that is free to sleep through an entire year if we so desire.