‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ by Ottessa Moshfegh ****

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.

9781787330412My 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.

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A Month of Favourites: ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ by Jonathan Safran Foer

Since first encountering the delightful Oskar and Safran Foer’s stunning way of writing, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has been a firm favourite of mine.  The protagonist, Oskar Schell, is a nine-year old boy who lives in New York City with his mother.  Oskar’s father was killed during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre.     The main thread of the story comes when grieving Oskar unearths a key, and believes that it holds the answer to a mystery which only he can solve.  There are, Oskar works out, 162 million locks in New York, but he has no idea as to which of these his father’s key will open.  He consequently goes on a quest of sorts through his city, piecing things together as he goes. 9780141025186

Picking up clues along the way, he is soon put onto the trail of someone with the surname of Black: ‘That was my great plan.  I would spend my Saturdays and Sundays finding all of the people named Black and learning what they knew about the key in the vase in Dad’s closet.  In a year and a half I would know everything.  Or at least know that I had to come up with a new plan’.

Oskar is one of the most original child characters whom I have come across in fiction, and he is a sheer joy to become acquainted with.  He is a headstrong and creative child; at the beginning of the book, for example, he talks about a host of inventions which he has thought up, clearly placing the reader inside his mind and giving an insight into his thought patterns: ‘What about a teakettle?  What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?…  What about little microphones?  What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls?’

The novel is at once beautiful, heartwarming and achingly sad.  Safran Foer has such a gorgeous and rather original way of writing; he immediately captures vivid scenes through Oskar’s eyes, and makes every single one of his characters both quirky and utterly believable.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a creative novel.  Whilst the majority of the story is told from Oskar’s perspective, there are also letters and photographs which, at first, add to the overall mystery.  The incredibly well-plotted whole has been so thoughtfully crafted and put together, and the reader is able to play the part of detective alongside our adorable, naive narrator, who becomes more worldly-wise as he follows the trail.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction around.

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American Literature Month: (One From the Archive) ‘I Never Knew That About New York’ by Christopher Winn ****

First published in July 2013.  (Not literature, per se, but fitting).

I’m sure that I speak for many when I say that New York is one of my favourite cities.  I was astounded by it when I visited in 2011, and Winn’s marvellous book has left me longing to go back.  I Never Knew That About New York is an addition to an already impressive series, which includes similar fact books about Ireland, Scotland, The Lake District and Royal Britain, amongst others.  In I Never Knew That About New York, Winn has endeavoured to dig ‘beneath the gleaming taverns and mean streets of New York’ and ‘discovers its secrets and hidden treasures… [He] unearths much that is unexpected and unremembered’.  Strange, then, that two rather commonplace facts are included on the book’s dustjacket – that the Empire State building was the tallest in the world for a forty year period, and that the Grand Central Terminal is the largest railway station in the world. 

I Never Knew That About New York is split into separate sections which relate to different districts or areas of the city.  These range from New York Harbor and Wall Street to Chelsea and Greenwich Village.  Rather than focus on New York State, Winn has taken only Manhattan Island as his foundation for this volume, in fear of not doing the other boroughs justice.  The entirety of the book is written in columns, almost forming a continuous newspaper article.  The style of the headings merely add to this effect.  Throughout, illustrations by Mai Osawa have been included, and it is fair to say that her beautiful line drawings match the text perfectly.

A timeline of Manhattan has been provided at the beginning of the book.  It begins in 1524, when Giovanni da Verrazano became the first European to enter New York, and stretches to the sole entry for 2013, which states that the One World Trade Center was completed.  Winn has encompassed the full history of New York, from navigator Henry Hudson sailing up the Hudson River in 1609 to Wilbur Wright’s 1909 flight from Governor’s Island (the first ever in a military plane and the first flight over water in America); from the Great Fire of 1835 to a list of the tallest buildings in the city; from the formation of Little Italy to the beginnings of world famous shops and delicatessens; and from the city’s first speakeasy to the many Art Deco buildings which grace its streets.  Separate grey boxes dotted throughout reveal biographies of notable figures associated with the city – Cornelius Vanderbilt, for example.  The city’s many monuments, tourist attractions and historical events are also presented in this way, ranging from facts pertaining to The Statue of Liberty and the circumstances of John Lennon’s murder, to the famous couples married at the Marble Collegiate Church.

I Never Knew That About New York is a fabulous resource for jetsetters and armchair travellers alike.  Its format as an amalgamation of travel guide and fact book is sure to be a marvellous companion for anyone embarking on either a short break or a longer stay.  The geographical format makes such a use of it perfect, in fact.

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American Literature Month: ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ by Richard Yates ***

The Times calls Yates ‘the most perceptive author of the twentieth century’; a high accolade indeed, but one which I think he deserves.  I so enjoy his novels, and had high hopes for his short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which I borrowed from the library.

The eleven stories here – all of which first found their homes in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Esquire – were written between 1951 and 1961, and were published together in 1962, just a year after the stunning Revolutionary Road.  Within this collection, ‘Yates creates a haunting mosaic of the 1950s, the era when the American dream was finally coming true – and just beginning to ring a little hollow’.  Kurt Vonnegut, himself a prominent author within the twentieth century’s American literature scene, deems this ‘one of the ten best short-story collections ever written by an American’.

As the title suggests, these stories are all character studies, each of which examine different degrees of loneliness or solitude.  Yates picks up on interesting details from the very start, particularly with regard to his characters’ features.  In ‘Doctor Jack-o’Lantern’, ‘the roots of his teeth were green’, and ‘A Glutton for Punishment’ begins: ‘For a little while when Walter Henderson was nine years old he thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance, and so did a number of his friends’.  Some of the moments which he captures are sublime.  For instance, in the tale entitled ‘No Pain Whatsoever’, a young woman named Myra visits her husband, a long-term hospital resident.  In our first glimpse of him, he is ‘sitting up, cross-legged, frowning over something in his lap’.  Yates goes on to describe that ‘sometimes they kissed on the lips, but you weren’t supposed to’; a rebellious act of love to save some semblance of a normal relationship.

As with his novels, Yates sets scenes masterfully.  ‘Doctor Jack-o’Lantern’, for example, begins in the following way: ‘All Miss Price had been told about the new boy was that he’d spent most of his life in some kind of orphanage, and that the grey-haired “aunt and uncle” with whom he now lived were really foster parents, paid by the Welfare Department of the city of New York.  A less dedicated or less imaginative teacher might have pressed for more details, but Miss Price was content with the rough outline.  It was enough, in fact, to fill her with a sense of mission that shone from her eyes, as plain as love, from the first morning he joined the fourth grade’.  New York, too, the city in which the majority of the tales take place, is perfectly sculpted.  The same story describes the way in which: ‘Clearly he was from the part of New York that you had to pass through on the train to Grand Central – the part where people hung bedding over their windowsills and leaned out on straight, deep streets, one after another, all alike in the clutter of their sidewalks and swarming with gray boys at play in some desperate kind of ball game’.

As I tend to find with single-author short story collections, some of the tales here were far stronger and more compelling than others.  It can certainly be said that each, however, is a perfectly created and easy to visualise slice of life.  Both the first and third person perspectives have been used, and each of the characters are vastly different from one another, both of which serve to create a varied collection.  I am of the opinion though that Yates seems more at home with novel-length works; there were a few instances in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness which felt rushed over, or not written about to the full extent that one already familiar with his work would expect.  Sadly, the collection was not as good as I thought it would be.

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‘My Salinger Year’ by Joanna Rakoff ****

The names and ‘identifying traits’ of many of the real-life people in Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, My Salinger Year, have been changed, but, she assures us, ‘this is the actual story of my Salinger year’.  Her autobiography tells of her year living in New York in the mid-1990s after completing her Master’s degree at University College London, working as an assistant at a famous literary agency.

The beginning of Rakoff’s book paints a vivid picture of a swathe of young women commuting to their first after-college positions in New York City, ‘all of us clad in variations on a theme – the neat skirt and sweater, redolent of Sylvia Plath at Smith’.  She goes on to say that she and the many other women in her position lived ‘never belying the fact that we got into this business not because we wanted to fetch glasses of water for visiting writers but because we wanted to be writers ourselves, and this seemed the most socially acceptable way to go about doing so, though it was already becoming clear that this was not at all the way to go about doing so’.

There is almost a feel of The Devil Wears Prada to Rakoff’s story at its beginning, working as she is for a woman set in her ways, who can be famously tricky to get on with.  Before appointing Rakoff, she had been ‘interviewing potential assistants for months’.  Rakoff is almost immediately put in charge of fending off those who are intent upon learning about J.D. Salinger, the agency’s most important client.  They long to know where he lives so that they can ‘interview him or give him a prize or an honorary degree or who knows what’.  Rakoff is honest and earnest, confiding that she had never read any of Salinger’s work, and detailing some of the replies which she wrote to the fanmail which arrived for him, which was, under strict instruction, not to be sent on.  She sets out the ins and outs of her personal life alongside her job, and the way in which they sometimes overlap has been marvellous worked.

Throughout, My Salinger Year is so well written.  The scenes which Rakoff illustrates come to life immediately; particularly vivid is her description of New York entirely shut down by a blizzard.  As a memoir, it is compelling; as a piece of literary criticism, it is fascinating and sometimes even profound.  My Salinger Year is sure to interest everyone who has ever wondered what life is like working within a literary agency, or who wants to learn more about life in the book world – or, indeed, about what J.D. Salinger, the man, was like.

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‘Of Scars and Stardust’ by Andrea Hannah ****

The protagonist of Andrea Hannah’s Of Scars and Stardust is Claire Graham, a seventeen-year-old who has moved from Ohio to New York City, in order to try and escape a tragedy in her hometown.  It is the disappearance of her younger sister, Ella, which sparks her return to Amble, the small town which she hails from.

The presence of wolves in Amble is a story widely believed by many of its residents, and is used as a deterrent for many things around the area: ‘exasperated parents used them as a warning for not eating all your peas at dinner – the wolves might be watching, so you better do it’.  The sense of foreboding which goes hand in hand with the very existence of the creatures has been built in a manner which is nothing short of stunning.  Hannah has ensured that her prose becomes taut – and consequently tense – at the most pivotal moments of the novel.

From the very beginning of Of Scars and Stardust, Hannah has set out the personality of her young lead character: ‘I followed.  Because I always followed.’  Her friends view her as sensible and serious, and her best friend Rae asks her, rather early on in her narrative, ‘Can’t you ever just, like, go with the flow, Claire?’.  Claire is the keeper of secrets, sworn to silence when Rae runs away with her boyfriend at the start of the novel.  The relationships between Claire and other characters – whether with Rae’s brother Grant, or her own sister Ella – have been carefully considered.

Throughout, Claire’s discomfort has been perfectly captured, and her many complexities help to build a believable character.  Her behaviour and actions fit well with the situations in which she finds herself, and a lot of thought has clearly been put into her creation.  Her first person narrative voice is strong.  Hannah’s descriptions wonderfully build the sense of place: the cornfields ‘blurred into a smear of brown and dropped over into the cement sky’, for example.  Hannah also places great importance upon each and every character she focuses upon, however small their role in the novel.  Of Claire’s friend Grant, Hannah describes the way in which ‘the freckles on his nose looked just like the Big Dipper, with its handle pointing to his eyebrows’, and of a stranger at a party, ‘His face was drenched in light, like tiny fireflies stuck in the folds of his almost-beard’.

So many themes can be found within Of Scars and Stardust‘s pages – family, loyalty, self-discovery, the notion of coping, love in many guises, assumptions, disappearance and grief amongst them.  Of Scars and Stardust is an intriguing and well written novel, which is sure to absorb any reader.  The pace of the whole is perfect, as is the arc of both the characters and situations in which they find themselves.

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