Book Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
After 2016’s Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh is back with another character novel that is just as bold and darkly funny as the Man Booker shortlistee. In contrast with Eileen, the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is never named, which is fitting to her character as her only goal in life during said year is to spend as much time as possible being asleep, dead to the world.
After having graduated in art history from Columbia and quitting her job at a pretentious art gallery, the unnamed narrator retires in her Upper East Side apartment and resolves to sleep for the coming year, at the end of which she expects to emerge a different person, “every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories” (51). With the help of Dr Tuttle, New York’s most eccentric and irresponsible psychiatrist, she gets a hold of every sleep medication available, and starts popping pills in increasingly daring cocktails. Apart from Dr Tuttle, the only other people in her life are Trevor, an older man who is more of an on-and-off hookup than a boyfriend per se, and Reva, her only friend, a bulimic image of the superficiality of upper class New York glamour. Both of the narrator’s parents died as she was in college, her father of cancer and her mother of a pills-and-alcohol suicide, and while she paints a clear picture of how distant they were and how little she felt for them, it is also clear that their deaths weigh heavily on her. Her relationship with Reva, on the other hand, is a one-sided ego boost that she finds very easy to dismiss with her poignant cynicism, as long as it is available. Reva is envious of the narrator’s wealth and supermodel looks, seeing in her a simulacra of what she has been trying to become. Reva’s friendship is usually confronted with mixed feelings along the lines of “I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you’d feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide” (7). Her acute annoyance often reads as a cynical shield suppressing everything else she might feel.
It wouldn’t be a Moshfegh novel if the narrator wasn’t what you’d call a deeply unlikable character. This narrator is not only vain, self-centred, cruelly dismissive of everyone around her, bordering on misanthropy, and cynical of every little display of affection or positivity, but also unapologetic about it to the point that any “redeeming quality” looming on the horizon becomes a laughable idea just a few pages in. It is a masterfully conceived and necessary voice in a modern literature landscape littered with feel-good characters that never manage, or even try, to escape their cliché archetype.
Her reclusive year of rest is often exposed to be a seemingly unhealthy and dangerous antidote or cure for a condition which is never self-diagnosed (and certainly not diagnosed by the wacky Dr Tuttle), analysed, or even taken very seriously. The solution is far more important than understanding the problem, which is described early on, and never revisited, as “misery, anxiety, a wish to escape the prison of my mind and body” (18). As months pass by and she finds stronger and stronger medication, her resolution evolves into a sort of sleep addiction, then into a pill addiction, until she is prescribed a pill that makes her blackout (but not sleep) for several days at a time. With no one caring enough to oppose her plan, and finally equipped with the right tools, there is no restraint to prevent her from seeing how far she is able to go.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is yet another triumphant achievement by one of the boldest American writers working today. It is sure to engross fans of Eileen and challenge everyone else. Exquisitely off-putting, darkly funny, and always unrelenting, Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel raises the bar of fiction yet again.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is published by Jonathan Cape and comes out on 12 July.
BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.