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?
My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) is the latest novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. The story follows an unnamed narrator who is fed up with her life such as it is. Both her parents are dead, her recurring ex-boyfriend is a high-class dirtbag, and her only consistent relationship with her friend Reva is toxic. Life offers nothing of meaning or value to her. Everything is a superficial façade. In an attempt to remedy her existential dilemma, with the help of a terrible psychiatrist, the narrator embarks upon a journey of self-renewal. She begins taking a myriad of sleep aids and medication to keep herself sedated in her apartment as often as possible for an entire year, believing that by the end of this time she will emerge restored in mind and spirit.
When the story begins she is already entrenched in her life of lethargy. We learn about her regular routine of downing coffees from a nearby bodega, re-watching VHS tapes of her favourite Harrison Ford and Whoopi Goldberg movies, and popping medication to make herself pass out for as long as possible. The writing was both captivating and hazy as I found myself drawn into the fog of her sleep-filled routine. Details about her past in school, her former job at an art gallery, and insight into her relationships both past and present were distinct, while the present moments blurred together. It painted a rather dreary picture of inactivity and depressive behaviour that gripped me in an effective way. I could not help being mentally dragged down a little to the narrator’s state of mind.
Having read Moshfegh’s work before in Homesick for Another World, she appears to have an interest in candidly capturing human misery on the page, which she evidently has a talent for as well. While this story definitely depicts depressive behaviour from the narrator, I was intrigued throughout by how unique and sometimes nebulous her state of misery was. Her actions are clearly self-destructive, but did not seem to be explicitly motivated by self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Sleep is the only thing she can get any true enjoyment from and, taken at her word, she legitimately believes her plan will help her to get better. She’s not necessarily given up nor trying to kill herself.
Ultimately her condition seemed to be a numbness to the world and all that was supposed to be meaningful in it. This is juxtaposed well against Reva, who heavily stresses the superficial in all aspects of her life. The arc their friendship follows was one of my favourite aspects of the book, as they’re feelings toward each other are complex and often bittersweet. Each character of note has a pointed ugliness to them, often related to a shade of human suffering. I often felt myself feeling sympathetic toward Reva and the narrator, while others were wrapped in the ugliness of their suffering more closely.
It was this facet of the story that I started to have a bit of trouble with the further I got. The only character I found downright deplorable was Trevor, the narrator’s ex, but for much of the story I didn’t find I liked anybody very much either. I would argue that the story is not meant to endear you to the characters, but sometimes it felt too much like I was wading into negativity whenever I cracked the book open. I liked the narrator’s frank insight into herself and others, but it was harder to connect with her on an amiable level, which left me reading about someone slowly destroying herself.
At a certain point she begins using a drug called infermiterol that causes her to black out for days at a time. It sounds ideal until she realizes that in that state she’s been leaving her apartment and getting up to goodness knows what, which is the exact opposite of what she wants. This ends up putting her in situations she meant to avoid and interferes with the rest of her medication, causing her situation to spiral downward more and more.
Fortunately, everything eventually came together in a rather meaningful way. It was a direction I did not expect the story to go in, but artfully incorporated elements from throughout the narrator’s journey that made it nice and cohesive. If you find yourself caught up in the negative feelings that are the bulk of the story I urge you to hang in there, it is not as hopeless as it sounds. At the same time it does not sacrifice its grounded, dour tone to shift things into sudden bright optimism. The shift occurs naturally and logically, ultimately feeling well-earned.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a deep dive into mental illness and suffering that candidly represents some of the ugliness of human existence and behaviour, while still providing some hope for growth and change. The privileged life of the narrator may make you scoff or frown at her circumstances, but I think the novel is self-aware enough of this that it doesn’t detract from the meaning of the story. You may also find yourself leery of how September 11, 2001 will factor into the story, as I did, since it is set in New York City shortly before that time and is not shy about mentioning dates. I won’t say too much on that, except that I think it is tastefully incorporated into the story without becoming too big of a plot point.
My rating: 4 out of 5
Reviews of other books by Ottessa Moshfegh: