My Year of Rest and Relaxation
(Penguin Press, 2018)
“I had started ‘hibernating’ as best I could in mid-June of 2000,” says the unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Moshfegh’s novel follows a conventionally beautiful 26-year-old woman—tall, thin, blonde—who has no real need to work, living on the Upper East Side in the year 2000, surviving off her dead parents’ inheritance. She has all the privilege and benefits afforded to a young, wealthy, white woman in New York, but all she wants to do is sleep.
The novel follows the narrator on her quest to sleep for a year. She very quickly finds a therapist, Dr. Tuttle, who is willing to write her any prescription she desires, and soon, she’s on a prescription cocktail of sleeping meds and anti-anxiety pills, leaving her apartment only to go to the bodega down the street or to visit the pharmacy for her drugs. She has one friend, Reva, a woman she treats terribly but who continues to visit, detailing her own work, family, and relationship woes as she suffers through an eating disorder. The narrator barely listens, often falling asleep mid-conversation, with a VHS tape of a Whoopi Goldberg movie playing in the background.
Moshfegh’s prose is spectacular, and she captures her narrator’s specific, unique voice perfectly—the voice of a jaded woman with no attachments who hates most people and puts up every wall and barrier in an attempt to feel nothing. Interestingly, Moshfegh chooses not to go deep into the narrator’s psyche. The narrator doesn’t quite seem depressed and, though her parents are dead and her childhood was rife with emotional trauma, none of that seems to really phase her. A lesser writer would not be able to pull off this lack of back-story or motivation, but Moshfegh has us accepting and believing the idea that the narrator simply wants to sleep.
Eventually, though, the narrator, on a drug called Infermiterol—made up entirely by Moshfegh—begins experiencing blackouts. She wakes to find that she has rearranged furniture, gone online shopping, or even gone clubbing—the evidence being a series of Polaroid photos. One day she wakes up on a train to Long Island, on her way to Reva’s mother’s funeral wearing a fur coat that she has no memory of purchasing. The story moves forward, and the narrator decides to spend forty days in complete hibernation. She counts her remaining Infermiterol and decides to lock herself in her apartment, experiencing these blackouts only in the safety of her own home. She makes a deal with an artist she knows who will come by every couple days to bring her pizza and clean up. In exchange, she allows him to film her during her blackouts for the purposes of an art project.
While nothing truly remarkable happens in these forty days, Moshfegh’s writing kept me entranced. She so perfectly captured a sense of ennui and amusement that I myself wondered if it wouldn’t be nice to just sleep all the time. Moshfegh creates a sense of manic lethargy in the narrator’s voice that is somehow appealing, making the character’s choices seem almost logical, even at their most absurd.
In the background of the story, though, is 9/11. While there are no real hints of impending doom, we are always made aware of the date, and for a while, I couldn’t quite figure out why Moshfegh sets the story in the year 2000. The character feels current, no different from a millennial today, but there are reminders of the past: VHS tapes, Whoopi Goldberg movies, AOL chat rooms. It is not until Reva mentions getting transferred to the World Trade Center that we realize what is coming. However, at the novel’s end, I still don’t know exactly why.
The narrator comes out of her hibernation a new person, one that is more appreciative of life but still a recluse in many ways. I can’t quite tell, though, what the significance of this is. What has she learned, and what will her life look like now? Perhaps these questions don’t need answering, as the ending leaves you intentionally unsettled. That said, Moshfegh’s novel is both sad and funny in all the best ways, leaving the reader with a sense of both existential dread as well as hope.