Sleep gets a bad rap in the United States. Despite the threats and cajolings of the CDC, which has deemed chronic sleeplessness a serious danger to the nation’s health, and despite reports that the tough-guy, sleep-when-you’re-dead ethos drilled into US Navy recruits is to blame for several embarrassing collisions between American destroyers and other vessels, we know the truth: rest is for sissies. The Department of Defense has funded research on the white-crowned sparrow, which during migration sleeps two thirds less than usual without missing a trick. “No naps for Trump!” the high-energy president-to-be bragged on the campaign trail. “I don’t take naps. We don’t have time.”
The critic Anna Della Subin offered a dissenting view in Not Dead but Sleeping (2016), her book-length essay on the cultural politics of sleep. Sleep, Subin argued, is an ancient form of nonviolent resistance that has become all the more subversive under 24/7 globalized capitalism. A sleeper “is the ultimate social critic, though he has missed most of what happened.” (Because he has missed most of what has happened, you might say—it’s not always encouraging to look too closely at what you’re up against.) For the most part, though, the left has been as virulently anti-snooze as the right. Although Subin cites Edward Bellamy’s best-selling 1888 sci-fi novel Looking Backward, in which an East Coast man slumbers for more than a century, awakening in the year 2000 to find that socialism has triumphed, she also mentions H. G. Wells’s more typical and far more plausible variation on the theme, When the Sleeper Wakes, whose hero opens his eyes to find that his trust fund has ballooned and that, thanks to compound interest and the machinations of a sinister corporation, he now owns most of the planet. Martin Luther King Jr. warned in 1965 against sleeping through a revolution, and there is, of course, no shortage of images from earlier in the twentieth century of the helpless masses dozing their way toward fascism. “I was dancing with Sally Bowles,” the failed-novelist narrator of Cabaret says, bastardizing Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, “and we were both fast asleep.”
Like Cabaret, Christian Kracht’s novel The Dead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), translated by Daniel Bowles, evokes a brightly colored burlesque Weimar period, in which a Swiss director, Emil Nägeli, is sent from Berlin to Japan to make a horror film bankrolled by the German state. (Though the filmmaker is fictional, Kracht surrounds him with minor historical figures.) Depending on whom you ask, the project is either going to help German cinema colonize the world, or it will do the same for Japan, where an official named Masahiko Amakasu is behind the whole arrangement. Or else, as Nägeli decides after a drunken evening with the Jewish writers Lotte Eisner and Siegfried Kracauer, he will make it an avant-garde masterpiece, a “metaphysics of the present” and a coded warning of impending horrors: “something full of pathos . . . a film that is recognizably artificial and deemed by audiences to be mannered and, above all, out of place.” Film, as the nationalist mogul Alfred Hugenberg approvingly tells Nägeli shortly before losing much of his grip on the apparatus of propaganda to Joseph Goebbels, “is nothing but cellulose nitrate, gunpowder for the eyes.”
Framed by two highly aestheticized death scenes that balance precariously between real and unreal, the book is structured more by its images and digressions than by its nominal plot. Even the details snatched from history seem dreamlike. Charlie Chaplin, for instance, snubs the Japanese prime minister’s dinner invitation and goes to a show instead, narrowly missing the naval officers’ coup attempt that was to have included his assassination.
Although Nägeli is by his own account one of the five true geniuses the cinema has produced, alongside Bresson, Ozu, Vigo, and Dovzhenko, Kracht’s description of his oeuvre is less enthusiastic. Die Windmühle, “a simple story of an austere Swiss mountain village,” offers lingering shots of trees, kitchen implements, the braids and necks of farm girls—it apparently has the kind of transcendent effect on viewers that can be produced only by art in which absolutely nothing of interest happens. While watching it, Amakasu keeps nodding off,
and after feeling for a moment that he was flying or perhaps walking underwater, he would awake again with a frightened jolt; the film’s suspended, almost abstract mosaics, flickering in hues of gray, had blended with the images from his dreams and covered his consciousness with the violet sheen of an indeterminate fear.
That said, for Kracht’s characters, even the merest nap can have a cinematic quality, plunging them into “the realm of the dead . . . that world in-between where dream, film, and memory haunt one another.”
In Kracht’s novel, the politics of sleep are ambiguous, and everyone’s inner life (except perhaps Chaplin’s) involves a dreamy floating punctuated by bursts of real or imagined violence. That pattern holds even for those who escape Europe for “that cultureless land” the United States—even in Hollywood, people remain always at risk of a sharp fall from a high place. The same could be said of the inhabitants of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Penguin Press, $26). Set in uptown Manhattan during the Weimaresque, Wellsian days of 2000 and 2001, right before the rude return of history, the novel is a first-person account of a rich, thin twenty-four-year-old blonde’s quest to enter a self-medicated hibernation that will wipe her mind clean so she can begin afresh. This notion may seem more like the seed for one of Moshfegh’s brilliant short stories than the makings of a full novel, yet I was soon lulled by the rhythm of our heroine’s search for oblivion—the days on the couch, the minor adventures she has while unconscious and must patch together later, the Whoopi Goldberg movies sliding by on VHS. Even the drugs lavished on the narrator by a gleefully cartoonish psychiatrist—when we first meet Dr. Tuttle, she is adorned, like a Bond villain, with a foam neck brace and an obese tabby cat—begin to develop a poetry all their own: the trazodone and primidone and Miltown, the Haldol and Seconal and Risperdal and Placidyl, the Valium and lithium and Ambien.
Moshfegh’s ear remains as merciless as ever. Like a latter-day Flaubert, she delights in vanity and mediocrity, and in the absurdist heights both can reach whenever the occasion calls for a few sincere words. “Everyone agreed,” she writes, describing a funeral, that the deceased
had been a good woman, that her death was sad, but that life was mysterious, death more so, and what’s the use in speculating so let’s remember the good times—at least she’d lived at all.
When the narrator can’t find the relief of losing consciousness altogether, she can sometimes get the next best thing from her friend Reva, whose “repression, her transparent denial,” and her unerring ability to “take what was deep and real and painful and ruin it by expressing it with such trite precision” deliver a consoling reminder: “Reva was an idiot, and therefore I could discount her pain, and with it, mine.”
Whether the narrator’s avid somnophilia is to be taken as the kind of proto-revolutionary refusal Subin has in mind or as a symptom of sociopolitical exhaustion, the logical extension of the values of the world she inhabits, it’s striking how little she misses out on by being barely conscious. Not for the first time in Moshfegh’s work, ordinary life is revealed as a more or less horrifying waste of time and energy, at least for anyone with half a brain. Most of the time, the narrator does noticeably better sleepwalking than awake: she’s often more effective at her art-gallery job, where her main task is to look languidly intimidating; she’s a kinder, more attentive friend, whose presence at the aforementioned funeral is a rare, totally accidental act of compassion, performed on drug-blackout autopilot; her disinterested fuck buddy Trevor much prefers it when she just lies there until he’s done and can spring off the mattress, “making my body bounce like a buoy on an empty sea.” Even conversation is improved by semiconsciousness. Reeling in and out of sleep on the couch in front of a porn film one night, she takes in enough of what Reva is confiding in her to make it clear that there’d be no advantage in catching the rest: “And so then Ken was like . . . That was the first time . . . I told my mom . . . She said to pretend it never happened . . . Am I nuts?”
Scattering her pages with pointedly flat sentences and deadpan jokes and almost never using a word that draws attention to itself, Moshfegh, unlike the more florid Kracht, is the kind of stealth prose stylist who can make you feel like a loser for noticing. Then there are the occasions when, without warning, as the narrator waits for her pills to kick in, you find yourself tumbling down a page-long sentence that moves as her mind moves, from “all the cruel people out there sleeping soundly, like newborn babes in blankets held to the bosoms of their loving mothers” to her own late mother’s “bony clavicles” and white lace underwear
and the gray satin dressing gown whose belt slipped out of its loops because it was slippery silk satin, and it rippled like the water in the river in a Japanese painting, my mother’s taut, pale legs flashing like the white bellies of sun-flashed koi, their fanlike tails stirring the silt and clouding the pond water like a puff of smoke in a magic show, and my mother’s powdered foundation, how when she dipped her fat, rounded brush in it, then lifted it to her wan, sallow face shiny with moisturizer, it also made a puff of smoke, and I remembered watching her “put her face on,” as she called it, and wondering if one day I’d be like her, a beautiful fish in a man-made pool, circling and circling, surviving the tedium only because my memory can contain only what is imprinted on the last few minutes of my life, constantly forgetting my thoughts.
There’s much to be said for a bit of oblivion. Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote appreciatively of some of the many myths and fables of centuries-long sleep that preceded Washington Irving, Bellamy, Wells, Woody Allen’s Sleeper, and the rest. Noting how “we imperceptibly advance from youth to age, without observing the gradual, but incessant, change of human affairs,” Gibbon imagined that if instead one could
display the new world to the eyes of a spectator, who still retained a lively and recent impression of the old, his surprise and his reflections would furnish the pleasing subject of a philosophical romance.
It depends on where you’re looking from. There are periods in history when we may be well aware of things changing quickly around us (and for the worse), periods when we may be forgiven for wondering whether we’d have much to lose if whoever was driving took a quick nap at the wheel.