I heard a lot about Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, during 2018, and was eager to read it myself. There have been so many positive reviews surrounding the book, and the Los Angeles Times have hailed Moshfegh ‘an unforgettable new American voice’. Thankfully, I was given a copy of the novel for Christmas, and picked it up at the start of the year.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is described as ‘a shocking, hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation, aided and abetted by one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature.’ The protagonist of the piece is a twenty six-year-old, unnamed, ‘thin, pretty’ woman, a recent graduate of Columbia University. She lives in an apartment, paid for by the inheritance she received from her deceased parents, in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She seems to have it all – wealth, a good degree, relative safety – ‘but there is a vacuum at the heart of things.’ The blurb goes on to ask: ‘It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?’
The novel’s protagonist decides, against better advice, to spend an entire year ‘under the influence of a truly mad combination of drugs’. She makes the decision to do so, as she feels somewhat overwhelmed by the world around her: ‘Things were happening in New York City – they always are – but none of it affected me. This was the beauty of sleep – reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream.’ I found her a fascinating character; whether as an effect of the drugs, or of her own personality, she is very direct about the likes of her parents’ deaths, and of her own sexual experiences. One gets a feel for her immediately, and can come to understand her reasoning: ‘My hibernation,’ she says, ‘was self-preservational. I thought that it was going to save my life.’ She sees sleep as something vital to the core of her self: ‘Oh, sleep. Nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.’
I was pulled in immediately. In the opening paragraph, the narrator details the routine which she makes herself stick to during her hibernation experiment. She tries not to leave her apartment if she can help it, and when she does, she goes no more than one block away. Whenever she finds herself awake, she walks around to a local bodega and buys two coffees; she would then ‘chug the first one in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment, then sip the second one slowly whilst I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks.’ The woman who prescribes her this cocktail of drugs, Dr Tuttle, is located in the Yellow Pages, and is an eccentric and unusual character. The narrator quickly learns to both exacerbate and fabricate her symptoms, so that she can receive stronger prescriptions, enabling her to live her life in a total daze.
As time goes on, she begins to remember less and less about what she does, and quite a sinister edge creeps into the story; she buys many unnecessary things online, spends a lot of time talking to strange people on Internet chatrooms, and wakes up smeared with the remnants of popsicles and chocolate milk that she does not remember purchasing. She reflects upon this in the following manner: ‘Sleepwalking, sleeptalking, sleep-online-chatting, sleepeating – that was to be expected, especially on Ambien. I’d already done a fair amount of sleepshopping on the computer and at the bodega. I’d sleeptexted and sleeptelephoned. This was nothing new.’ She becomes numbed, both to the city in which she lives, and to the effects which it has upon her.
Whilst under the influence, she does maintain a relationship of sorts with her best friend, Reva, but there are many startling problems embedded deep within their discussions. She describes Reva as ‘corny and affectionate and needy, but she was also very secretive and occasionally very patronizing’. Reva cannot understand, or bring herself to, why her friend is shutting out the world. The more troubling aspects of their friendship are slowly revealed: ‘I couldn’t get rid of her,’ says out protagonist. ‘She worshipped me, but she also hated me. She saw my struggle with misery as a cruel parody of her own misfortunes.’
This is the first of Moshfegh’s books which I have read, but it will not be the last. I am particularly intrigued by her novel Eileen, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2016.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is an alarming novel, but also a compulsively readable one. The unreliable narrator’s situation is rendered surprisingly convincing, due to a combination of clever plotting and Moshfegh’s tightly considered prose. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time.