My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press 978-0525522119, $26.00, 304pp, hc) July 2018.
I’m sure if it was feasible a number of us would jump at the idea of hibernating for an entire year. Anything to avoid the ongoing horror show currently masquerading as politics. It’s certainly the plan of the unnamed protagonist in Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Except she isn’t looking to escape Donald Trump’s Twitter account, Theresa May’s No Brexit deal, or the inability of an Australian Prime Minister to sit a full term in office. The novel is set at the turn of this century with Bill Clinton completing his second term in the White House, Al Gore yet to lose the election to George W. Bush following a Florida recount, and the Twin Towers still a prominent feature of the Manhattan skyline. It’s a more innocent time where even the near impeachment of a sitting President over his relationship with a White House intern pales in comparison to the overwhelming number of scandals generated weekly by Trump and his dysfunctional administration.
Of course, just because recent history seems relatively mild on reflection doesn’t mean it wasn’t awful to experience. That’s the case for Moshfegh’s narrator. By her admission, she is attractive and wealthy – her parents (now deceased) left her with a sizable inheritance. Yet rather than enjoy life she’s become quite the misanthrope, as evidenced by her explanation as to why she decides to Rip Van Winkle a year away:
Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.
This attitude, we discover, stems from a stunted upbringing devoid of warmth or love. Her father, “joyless,” “serious,” and “sterile,” was ravaged by cancer, her mother, “pointless” and “self-obsessed,” shot herself shortly after her husband’s death. Neither were the greatest of role models unless the objective was to infuse their daughter with a hatred of humanity. Her move to New York – initially to study at Columbia University – only reinforces her perspective. She loathes her job at an art gallery, particularly the pretentious work on display. She spends as little time as possible with her neurotic and body-conscious best friend Reva and her relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Trevor is fuelled entirely by self-hatred and sadism.
It’s no real surprise then – especially after she leaves her job and Trevor stops answering her calls – that our narrator would decide to skip a year. But this plan only becomes possible after her first appointment with the unhinged and unethical Doctor Tuttle, a psychiatrist who hands out sleeping pills like they are candy. It’s Doctor Tuttle who prescribes our narrator a drug named Infermiterol, a potent sedative that wipes her memory for three days. One moment she’s asleep, the next she’s waking up on a train with “the theme from Tootsie running through [her] head.”
Having loved the claustrophobic and unsettling nature of Moshfegh’s brilliant debut novel Eileen (deservedly shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2016), I was surprised, but also delighted, that My Year of Rest and Relaxation is so completely bonkers. It’s not just the fact the large number of pills our narrator takes daily would kill an average person, or that the story is populated by over-the-top characters like Doctor Tuttle, it’s that the book is also hilarious. Moshfegh’s evisceration of the New York art scene is laugh-out-loud funny – an art installation involving taxidermied dogs is a particular case in point. Our protagonist’s deep and abiding love for the films of Whoopi Goldberg and Harrison Ford – she often pops an Ambien and then regales Reva with the plot of Frantic – is a lovely, humorous touch. The ludicrous nature of it all won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I revelled in it.
It’s not all fun and games, though. The spectre that hangs over My Year of Rest and Relaxation is 9/11. It isn’t a spoiler to say that the ending deals directly with the tragedy; it’s clear from the outset that this is where Moshfegh is heading. Amongst the absurd art installations and crack-pot psychiatrists, it’s sobering to read that Reva is about to begin a new job in the Towers. We know what that means. For Moshfegh 9/11 is the moment where we all woke up, where the minutiae of life were deluged by externalities out of our control (not that they ever were). Sleep might be foremost in the mind of our narrator, but My Year of Rest and Relaxation ultimately recognises that we can’t avoid Trump or Brexit or the impending threat of climate change, that sleep is an indulgence we can no longer afford.
This review and more like it in the November 2018 issue of Locus.
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