Book review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) by Ottessa Moshfegh

Whenever I woke up, night or day, I’d shuffle through the bright marble foyer of my building and go up the block and around the corner where there was a bodega that never closed. I’d get two large coffees with cream and six sugars each, chug the first one in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment, then sip the second one slowly while I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks. A few months went by.

Thus begins My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a wonderful and darkly comedic novel I recently finished.

The premise is simple: it is the year 2000 and a traumatised and existentially lost young woman decides to undertake an exercise in radical passivity. On the outside, our main character is an attractive “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” Columbia graduate with a promising life ahead of her. But after losing both her parents while in college, she finds her inner life falling apart and she begins to follow the long, bitter road towards loathing the entire world around her.

Whereas most normal people would cope by travelling the world, getting a terrible tattoo, or finding solace in a puppy, our protagonist decides to use her inheritance to buy an Upper East Side apartment and lock herself in all day, watching endless VHS tapes (with Whoopi Goldberg films being a special obsession of hers) and taking an ungodly amount of medication to help her sleep as much as (in)humanly possible. That’s it. That’s the entire plot. A young woman at the turn of the millennium decides that the only way she can survive and renew her soul is by being in a pharmaceutically induced semi-coma for an entire year.

Thankfully, Moshfegh manages to pack plenty of twists and turns and thematic revelations into what initially comes across as a bit of an anti-narrative. My Year Of Rest and Relaxation is a lampoon of “feminine” self-help and wellness culture. It is a stab the millennial dream of a hip, cosmopolitan lifestyle in the big city. And it is a loud, sardonic shout at the prescription medication madness that has gripped contemporary America.

If this book were set circa 2015, it would be titled “Netflix and Pill”.

I love the bitterness of the main character, channelled with incredible force into her eviscerating and astute observations. Consider this following passage, where she describes the “hipster nerds” she would come across in the Manhattan art scene:

As an art history major, I couldn’t escape them. “Dudes” reading Nietzsche on the subway, reading Proust, reading David Foster Wallace, jotting down their brilliant thoughts into a black Moleskine pocket notebook. Beer bellies and skinny legs, zip-up hoodies, navy blue peacoats or army green parkas, New Balance sneakers, knit hats, canvas tote bags, small hands, hairy knuckles, maybe a deer head tattooed across a flabby bicep. They rolled their own cigarettes, didn’t brush their teeth enough, spent a hundred dollars a week on coffee. They would come into Ducat, the gallery I ended up working at, with their younger—usually Asian—girlfriends. “An Asian girlfriend means the guy has a small dick,” Reva once said. I’d hear them talk shit about the art. They lamented the success of others. They thought that they wanted to be adored, to be influential, celebrated for their genius, that they deserved to be worshipped But they could barely look at themselves in the mirror.

The snarky narrative voice often comes across like a highly articulate Reddit rant. This millennial, Internet-era affect was very likely a conscious decision by Moshfegh. But the above quotation also demonstrates a weakness in her writing style as well. At points, the prose gives way to quantity over quality as the main character begins to endlessly list various objects of fascination or disgust for her. Her massive VHS film collection. All the types of ice cream her local bodega sells. Different variants of the colour blue. The lists go on and on.

Where the listicles shine, however, is when the narrator rattles off the sheer cornucopia of pharmaceutical products that can be ingested in the land of the free. Real-life brand name medications are mixed in with those of Moshfegh’s imagination (including “Infermiteral”, a terrifying, black-out inducing substance she invented for the novel), and quantity takes on a quality of its own as we learn about the uses and abuses of our protagonist’s chemical hibernation lifestyle:

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 tazodone because trazodone weighed down the Ambien, so if I dreamt, I’d dream love 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.

Is she an unlikeable narrator? I certainly didn’t think so, though I imagine other readers finding her savage tone throughout the novel somewhat off-putting. But I known and befriended people similar to her in real-life, and I can absolutely empathise with her anger and desperation, as absurd as her solution might be. I think most people can.

Similarly, I can understand the toxic relationships she has with the small cast of supporting characters in the novel. Consider our narrator’s emotionally abusive friendship with Reva, or the way she is treated by her shitty on-and-off Wall Street boyfriend Trevor. These are all believable to a point. I have witnessed people behave in such ugly, farcical ways.

That said, I found the narrator’s psychiatrist, the insane Dr Tuttle who enables her drug habit, to be a weak link in the book’s web of relationships. “Daily meditation has been shown to cure insomnia in rats”, she states at one point in the novel. “There was recently a study in Australia that said that when you sleep on your back, you’re more likely to have nightmares about drowning. It’s not conclusive, of course, since they’re on the opposite side of the Earth,” she announces in another. Dr Tuttle is an absurd creation whose antics and dialogue strain too much for comedic effect, rendering her utterly parodic and unengaging as a consequence. I wish Moshfegh could have toned her down.

The fact that the book is set in Manhattan in the year 2000 is no coincidence. References to the Twin Towers abound and Moshfegh’s narrative very deliberately acts as a countdown to the September 11 attacks. The actual treatment of 9/11 itself aside (the novel draws on it in a very fascinating way), the book’s setting fits into an interesting period of the American pathos.

I would describe My Year of Rest and Relaxation as an example of “inter-crisis literature”, fitting into that rosy space between American economic and social woes of the 70s and 80s, and the War on Terror and Great Recession in the first decade of the 2000s. Fight Club (both the 1996 novel and the 1999 film) comes to mind as a masculine example of the genre — one where the despair of masculinity comes from a source of affluence and urban comfort, whereas today it would more likely come from a place of economic angst (think the hollowing out of Middle America and “Millennial Burnout”).

I give this novel a strong recommendation, obviously. For a similar book on the themes of transgressive, radical passivity from a feminine lens, Han Kang’s extraordinary and haunting novel The Vegetarian is worth checking out. Likewise, a story in which a female character has to grapple with intense existential crisis while trapped in her own home is Elena Ferrante’s wonderfully upsetting novella The Days of Abandonment. It actually has some startling similarities to My Year of Rest and Relaxation to the point that I suspect Moshfegh may have cribbed a little bit from it — namely, both books take place in a confined apartment space where the main female character is unable (or unwilling) to leave. Whereas Ferrante uses her space to upend notions of traditional, nurturing domesticity, Moshfegh uses it to critique high-end yuppie lifestyles.

Strangely enough, I was also struggling with insomnia at the time of reading, so I ended up whittling away the early hours of the morning reading this book. Staying up all night reading a book about a woman desperate to fall asleep. How ironic. I finished it on Sunday morning and, after closing it, I just had to lie in bed for a few moments and feel a powerful catharsis of lightness and sadness wash over me.

This was perhaps the strongest feature of the book for me. Despite its cynical and tartly humorous exterior, there is also a genuine tenderness at the book’s core that comes together in the end. The characters struggle, they feel anguish, they want to better themselves, and they want their actions to mean something. It is a story that strongly captures the human need to be fully, truly awake in this one brief life of ours.

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