The book was the contrast of my 2020 thus far.
In the novel, a young privileged New Yorker, a recent Columbia Graduate, has numbed herself out with a complex menu of antipsychotic drugs and sedatives. As she finds less and less purpose in her life—her shallow boyfriend, meaningless sex, and her disingenuous friendships—she shrinks into the confines of her apartment, all day, every day, to sleep off her life as much as possible. Getting up only to make sure she can get her psychiatrist to refill her prescriptions and get her on stronger medications.
While enough about the book and its possible satirical themes and metaphors about our life have been written about in reviews, there is a very simple point the narrative makes which is most important to me. The point is this: how much of a choice do we have in operating the lens of our life? This is a choice many of us (the ones privileged enough to buy our lattes at will, and bitch about fascism while battling chunks of bad mental health) can make.
At any point we could justify the unnamed protagonist in the book. Her privilege and inherited money would never up and leave and she’d always be able to numb her existence by the many loopholes in the pharmaceutical industry, one which is designed to keep us focused on the idea that our sanity and health depend on binary pathological diagnosis and a pill that would cure it. Or keep us dead enough mentally to not think too much about it. And we could say, we’re all going to be dead anyway, whether that’s in the next few seconds or the next 40 years. What you focus on, then becomes your reality and purpose. What your thoughts go to. If your thought goes to the futility of life, then certainly it doesn’t matter what you do.
See, my positive spiritual diagnosis is what makes me think purpose is anything but that. It is finding the joy in the sentence of a book, or the moment of warmth in a lover’s hand. It is subverting the expectations others had of you and being extraordinarily kind when it’s least expected. It is going the extra mile when it’s mostly unnecessary. It’s creating infrastructure for emotional exchanges.
And then, there is the void. And the days where I feel like the book got it right, that quenching thirst to be numbed was a stark reality in my experience. It’s the dark basement of futility filled with its damp cold mould seemed sometimes like a more reasonable place to hide.
Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth (Unnamed Press /Penguin India 2019) which was shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live First Book Award. Her work has been published and featured in Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Vogue India, Out of Print, TBLM, and Bengal Lights, among others. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore, India. Rheea has an MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts.