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A Woman Sleeps a Year Away in Ottessa Moshfegh’s Darkly Comic New Novel

“‘At least I’m making an effort to go after what I want,’” an exasperated and frightened Reva tells her. “‘Besides sleeping, what do you want out of life?’ …

“‘I wanted to be an artist, but I had no talent,’ I told her.

“‘Do you really need talent?’

“That might have been the smartest thing Reva ever said to me.

“‘Yes,’ I replied.”

Having given up her ambitions to create art, the narrator resigns herself to becoming art. In the first days of 2001, she runs into Ping Xi, a successful young artist she knows from her gallery job. He gained notoriety — and an expulsion from art school — for firing a gun in his studio, and has since inexplicably tattooed red zits on his chin. They reach an agreement by which, in a new stage of her sleep experiment, she’ll be locked up in her apartment for four months while he films her and paints her and feeds her. He would be the “warden of my hibernation,” she says. Their ideas about the project, though, don’t align. At the start, Ping Xi wants to film her burning her birth certificate. “I knew what he was thinking,” the narrator tells us. “He was imagining how the critics would describe the video. He needed fodder for analysis. But the project was beyond issues of ‘identity’ and ‘society’ and ‘institutions.’ Mine was a quest for a new spirit.”

By the end of her self-imprisonment, a transformation does occur. Ping Xi’s show, called “Large-Headed Pictures of a Beautiful Woman,” opens, and receives mostly positive reviews, but it’s not his art that interests her. It’s her own desire to be an artist that has been reborn. She finds herself at the Met in early September 2001, shortly before 9/11, newly awakened to everything joyful and prosaic about the artist’s life. Moshfegh’s extraordinary prose soars as it captures her character’s re-engagement:

“I wanted to see what other people had done with their lives, people who had made art alone, who had stared long and hard at bowls of fruit. … Did they know that glory was mundane? Did they wish they’d crushed those withered grapes between their fingers and spent their days walking through fields of grass or being in love or confessing their delusions to a priest or starving like the hungry souls they were, begging for alms in the city square with some honesty for once? Maybe they’d lived wrongly. Their greatness might have poisoned them. Did they wonder about things like that? … Maybe they understood, in fact, that beauty and meaning had nothing to do with one another. Maybe they lived as real artists knowing all along that there were no pearly gates. Neither creation nor sacrifice could lead a person to heaven.”

It’s one of the only times she’s wondered about the lives of artists she admires, and one of the first times she’s truly looked beyond the frame of her television set.

“Step away,” a guard reprimands her when she gets too close to a painting.

She does not step back. Instead, she puts her hand out and touches the frame of the painting. Then she places her whole palm on the surface of the canvas. The guard grips her shoulders, but after she explains that she got dizzy, the guard lets her go, and she is free.

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