290 pagesPublished 2018 by Penguin
From one of our boldest, most celebrated new literary voices, a novel about a young woman’s efforts to duck the ills of the world by embarking on an extended hibernation with the help of one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature and the battery of medicines she prescribes.
Our narrator should be happy, shouldn’t she? She’s young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, works an easy job at a hip art gallery, lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like the rest of her needs, by her inheritance. But there is a dark and vacuous hole in her heart, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her best friend, Reva. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?
Whew! I had a surprising reaction to this novel. Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation managed to catch me off guard and by surprise. Probably because – funny story – ironically, this book is about a character who does what I always say I’d like to do: have the ability to put my life on pause for just a few days to rest, to think, to recharge. Then press a magic button and the world resumes spinning, without me having lost a single second of my life. Wouldn’t that be wonderful! Well, here’s that idea with a twist: Little Miss Nameless Protagonist here does this for an entire year (while strung out on a myriad of different high-level drugs, all while juggling her semi-unwanted friendship with her best friend and her feelings about the death of her parents and the reality of her shitty boyfriend – really, he’s not even that). Set in the year 2000, our narrator decides to hibernate through a year of her life in an attempt to be a new person on the other side of that time. So, with the help of a zany and negligible psychiatrist who’s first and only line of doctoring is to pull out her prescription pad, our narrator dives deeper and deeper into the world of prescription drugs—and the psychological effects of them—in her quest to sleep away a year of her life.
My Ambien, my Rozerem, my Ativan, my Xanax, my trazodone, my lithium. Seroquel, Lunesta. Valium. I laughed. I teared up. Finally, my heart slowed. My hands started trembling a little, or maybe they’d been trembling all along. “Thank God,” I said aloud…I counted out three lithium, two Ativan, five Ambien. That sounded like a nice mélange, a luxurious free fall into velvet blackness. And a couple of trazodone because trazodone weighed down the Ambien, so if I dreamt, I’d dream low to the ground. That would be stabilizing, I thought. And maybe one more Ativan. Ativan to me felt like fresh air. A cool breeze, slightly effervescent. This was good, I thought. A serious rest. My mouth watered. Good strong American sleep.
Jacques Louis David’s neoclassical painting has been used as the cover, a reference to our protagonist’s “culture,” of which she is so proud and self-important, and her Art History background in college and before she quit the workforce. It’s nice touch, offering layers of other meanings to this book. Within these pages you’ll find a slew of wholly unlikeable characters – well, unlikeable by the arbitrary standards we tend to think of as what makes a “nice” or “good” person. You won’t find those people here. Instead you’ll find the nameless narrator who knows she’s gorgeous and privileged and secretly loves the fact that her (bulimic, needy, whiny, having an intra-office affair with a married guy) best friend, Reva, is jealous of her. You’ll find the WASP mother of the nameless protagonist who can’t be bothered to mother but instead calls in the nanny and drinks herself to death in the end. The artiste who made his claim to fame by ejaculating on a blank canvas in various colors. And we shan’t forget the “boyfriend” who uses our protagonist for quick sexual trysts that work out to only his benefit and then shuns her for weeks or months until he’s ready for another one. She has become semi-dependent on him and this cycle of abuse, even as he hopes that it will one day stop and that he’ll choose her. Their relationship is twisted and not at all the storybook love affair you’re used to:
I called Trevor again. This time when he answered, I didn’t let him say a word. “If you’re not over here fucking me in the next forty-five minutes then you can call an ambulance because I’ll be here bleeding to death and I’m not gonna slit my wrists in the tub like a normal person. If you’re not here in forty-five minutes, I’m gonna slit my throat right here on the sofa. And in the meantime, I’m going to call my lawyer and tell him I’m leaving everything in the apartment to you, especially the sofa. So you can lean on Claudia or whoever when it comes time to deal with all that. She might know a good upholsterer.
I hear Moshfegh is a fan of writing about these sorts of characters – characters who need to a chaser or too before they’ll go down our throats smoothly. This was my first foray into her works, and I don’t mind that. In fact, that quality is what drew me deeper into this novel once I opened the first page. Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxationdoesn’t shy away from the murk and unpleasantness – really, downright offensiveness – inside of us all, that we’re all capable of. In fact, her characters here seem to revel in the way their ickiness makes them better than other people while simultaneously wallowing in it until it nearly drowns them. It’s a bold and scary line for an author to walk, and to see the characters on, but that’s what we love about writers who can pull it off. We all need that shiny mirror of our own spiny imperfections staring back at us from time to time, don’t we? My Year of Rest and Relaxation is dark and obnoxious, but I loved it. Because, isn’t life that way sometimes? I love characters with bite, maybe a pinch of cruelty in them –
But did I care? I didn’t think so. If Reva’s body was hanging by the neck behind the bath curtain, I might have just gone home.
–I appreciate the layers of characters who aren’t bow-tied in shiny pink ribbons of perfection, happy and grinning stupidly with their perfect teeth and empty heads. I like a character who is…shall I say, more like a real person, imperfections and all. Honestly, I felt like this book was WASPy done well – and I don’t think I’ve ever
said that before. Even as she stood at the edge of reality, possibly even the precipice of her life, I was able to forget that her feeling of ennui with her privilege annoyed me. I wanted to reach out my hand to her, hoping she’d be okay:
I wondered if I might be dead, and I felt no sorrow, only worry over the afterlife, if it was going to be just like this, just as boring. If I’m dead, I thought, let this be the end. The silliness. At some point I got up to guzzle water from the tap in the kitchen. When I stood upright afterward, I started to go blind. The fluorescent lights were on overhead. The edges of my vision turned black. Like a cloud, the darkness came and rested in front of my eyes. I could move my eyes up and down, but the black cloud stayed fixed. Then it grew, widening. I buckled down to the kitchen floor and splayed out on the cold tile. I was going to sleep now, I hoped. I tried to surrender. But I would not sleep. My body refused. My heart shuddered. My breath caught. Maybe now is the moment, I thought: I could drop dead right now. Or now. Now. But my heart kept up its dull bang bang, thudding against my chest…
But this novel’s ending is what sealed the deal for me, culminating with 9/11 shortly after our protagonist wakes from her year of sleep. The towers come down, someone she knows dies, and maybe – just maybe – that last line of the novel shows that our protagonist has finally found her humanity. I highly recommend this book to readers who like their characters straight with no chaser, to readers who don’t shy away from the some of the darker hues of humanity. If you’re uncomfortable with that notion, definitely stay away! I was glued to this novel from start to finish, and that resonating ending easily solidified the strong 4 stars I’m offering up. ****
I received an advance-read copy of this novel from the publisher, Penguin, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from Boston. She was awarded the Plimpton Prize for her stories in The Paris Review and granted a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford.