MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press, July 2018
This book was a weird and offbeat delight. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is exactly what its title advertises – our unnamed narrator decides that all she wants out of life is to sleep for a year straight. But not just 8 hour a night sleep – she wants to pass an entire year mostly unconscious, which she attempts to achieve with the help of a cocktail of pharmaceuticals prescribed by the least qualified psychiatrist of all time who she happened to find in the yellow pages.
I’m having a hard time putting my finger on what it is I liked so much about this book, when the interesting thing about it is that it makes no effort whatsoever to be likable. The narrator is a selfish twenty-something with no sense of responsibility toward anything or anyone in her life. The circumstances of her life are probably difficult for most readers to relate to – she’s rich, she’s thin, she’s pretty, she lives in the Upper East Side in an apartment paid for by her inheritance – and she neither needs nor wants our pity. But at the same time, this candid and frank style has its own kind of charm and dark humor (it reminded me a bit of The Idiot in tone), and I found the overall effect to be both intriguing and a bit unsettling.
And, as with all good unlikable protagonists, there’s definitely more to our narrator than she wants us to see. Her (borderline?) abusive relationship with her now dead parents certainly plays into the fact that she holds everyone – including us, including herself – at an arm’s length. She resists accessing her emotions to such an extent that at first you wonder if she might actually be heartless, but throughout the book you start to notice certain cracks in her carefully constructed facade. She tells the reader ad nauseum that she doesn’t care about her friend Reva, but this statement is occasionally belied by her actions especially under the influence of drugs. It’s an interesting look at repression as a coping mechanism, as well as the lengths we’re willing to go to to avoid the things we don’t want to face.
Ironically, while the narrator’s goal is laid out plainly from the first page – she wants to sleep for a year – Moshfegh’s agenda with this novel is much more opaque. I will gladly admit to thinking on more than one occasion “I don’t get it, I don’t get what Moghfegh is trying to achieve with this.” Because this book is just what it says on the tin: it’s about a girl taking a lot of drugs and sleeping for a year. But even through those moments of doubt, I was engrossed. Moshfegh’s prose is effortlessly engaging, and her rather unconventional exploration of mental health and ennui just really struck a chord with me. And the final page is like an emotional gut-punch. Having read this, I have a very good idea of why Ottessa Moshfegh seems to be such a polarizing writer, but if the rest of her books are this intriguing, I’m officially hooked.