Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh
Sleepwalking towards disaster: a satirical and compelling exploration of privilege, consumerism and sleep
“Life was repetitive, resonated at a low hum.”
In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the parallels are stark. A year spent doing nothing; staying at home; avoiding social interaction; hibernating? This isn’t just fiction anymore. Despite publication in 2018, Ottessa Moshfegh has managed to foreshadow our collective 2020/2021 year of rest and relaxation, a year where life has also “resonated at a low hum” and bored desperation has reached new heights. However, in the case of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, it is a willing choice. The unnamed narrator, a wealthy, privileged and beautiful 26-year-old New Yorker, has only one aim: to hibernate, withdraw herself completely from life and enter a mostly exclusive and medically induced somnolent state.
Reading a book centred on doing nothing at all, in a year when we, as a global collective, have also done nothing at all, could seem a strange choice. Yet, despite basically nothing happening, few characters, and an apathetic, unreliable narrator, Moshfegh’s writing is so compelling, savage and darkly funny that I raced through this in around three long sittings, finding it one of the most entertaining books I have read in a long time.
Our narrator, an emotionless Columbia graduate whose apathy and general disdain for waking life are reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’s characters, is on a mission to spend as much of her year as possible asleep. It is Summer 2000. She is an orphan: her “joyless” and distant father died of cancer, and her unloving, alcoholic mother killed herself six weeks later. She is also highly privileged and extremely wealthy – she is able to finance a year of slumber by paying her bills and rent on automatic payment plans. She has no job, having been fired from a Chelsea art gallery for sleeping in the supply closest, and her relationship with her on-off older boyfriend Trevor – who would “deplete his self-esteem in relationships with older women, i.e., women his age, then return to me to reboot” – is hardly satisfactory.
She has only one friend, Reva (although, she brazenly admits she doesn’t “like her anymore”) – who is bulimic, insecure and deeply sad, a tragicomic punching bag for the narrator’s boredom. “I took a Polaroid of her one night and stuck it into the frame of the mirror in the living room. Reva thought it was a loving gesture, but the photo was really meant as a reminder of how little I enjoyed her company.” Reva is the antithesis of the narrator: desperately appearance based, vain, emotional and, relatively speaking, quite nice. The narrator is not nice.
To aid her quest for “good American sleep”, the narrator has Dr Tuttle. She is lucky to find Dr Tuttle – an absurd and cartoonish psychiatrist, with a foam neck brace and a “face like a bloodhound” – who easily dispenses prescriptions for a whole raft of pills. “Neuroproxin, Maxiphenphen, Valdignore, and Silencior … Seconolos or Nembutals … Valiums or Libriums … Placidyls or Noctecs or Miltowns.” Most of these are real; some are made up, including Infermiterol, which becomes the narrator’s drug of choice and produces three-day-long blackouts.
Arguably, these blackouts contain the most real action of the book. In one scene, she comes to, “as if [she’d] just blinked” on a train towards Reva’s mother’s funeral, dressed only in jeans, old trainers and a long white fur coat. After another blackout, she pieces together her missing days with the remnants in her apartment: a half-bottle of Gordon’s gin, a few Polaroids of “pretty party people”, her pubic hair waxed off. Like the narrator, we are in the dark when it comes to what actually occurs in these periods of unconsciousness. But this doesn’t matter – what the book lacks in actual events, it makes up for with sharp writing, comically unlikable characters and a satirical examination of consumerism and privilege.
The narrator is not exactly grieving her parents’ deaths – although, she does admit that she got along best with her mother “when we were asleep”, giving a Freudian twist to her slumber odyssey – yet there are hints that she wants to excavate some forgotten emotional sensibility. While she complains about the dismal state of affairs and expresses her desire to roll her back away from the outside and remain horizontal, sleep resembles more than just an escape from the mundane or depressing exterior life. She wants to hibernate; to mentally and physically expunge herself and to emerge at the end, cleansed. “I was plagued with misery, anxiety, a wish to escape the prison of my mind and body.” Sleep isn’t just a rejection of life, but it’s also a rejection of herself. She feels imprisoned and trapped, and sleep becomes a cleansing ritual, a process of rebirth and catharsis.
In the second half of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the narrator intensifies her mission. With the aid of forty Inferminterol and Ping Xi, an artist at the Chelsea gallery, she spends four months in a non-stop pattern of sleep binges; her intermittent conscious hours spent eating, bathing and doing a few exercises. Ping Xi, whose experimental art includes paintings “à la Jackson Pollock, made from his own ejaculate”, has her permission to use her in the “blackout state as his ‘model’” (as long as he brings her whatever food or medication she wishes). The narrator later features in his exhibition, “Large-Headed Pictures of a Beautiful Woman”: a real-life sleeping beauty. On June 1 2001, a year of rest and relaxation later, she emerges. “My sleep had worked,” she thinks to herself. “I was soft and calm and felt things … I could move on.” Mission accomplished.
But it’s not as simple as that. Despite her positive personal transformation, there is an ongoing sense of threat and fear throughout My Year of Rest and Relaxation. She wakes up in New York June 2001; there is danger around the corner. The 9/11 attacks come as no surprise. When Reva and Trevor casually mention their employment in the World Trade Center, there are hints to where the book is headed. But the narrator takes no notice of these exterior dangers: why should she? She pays more attention to Whoopi Goldberg, 90s VHS movies and sleep than she does to Bush’s inauguration or global threats. Her rebirth unfortunately coincides with destruction: she may feel calm and serene after her year of slumber, but the world is about to be violently woken up from the American dream.