My Year of Rest and Relaxation
In the summer of 2000, in a Manhattan apartment, the hero of this vicious novel by Ottessa Moshfegh sets herself up with lots of VHS tapes, puts her bills on autopay, and begins a year of deliberate hibernation. “Sleep felt productive,” she reports to us. “Something was getting sorted out.” Grieving her parents, who both died within months, she enters this curdled vision of a children’s fantasy with the aim of being cognisant as scarcely as possible and waking up a whole new person.
She’s 24, highly educated, quick to judge. Her emotional opposite is Reva, a mockable pal who views the hibernation as a personal slight. “I had chosen my solitude and purposelessness, and Reva had, despite her hard work, simply failed to get what she wanted – no husband, no children, no fabulous career.” When Reva visits the narrator in her bombed-out state – maintained by medications from a neglectful doctor the protagonist describes as “a whore to feed me lullabies” – their conversations play out like a formal dialectic on friendship, femaleness and perhaps American happiness.
But it’s not quite an allegory, this hunger for “good strong American sleep”. It always feels potent, but the tone keeps veering between pointed metaphor and committed character study, whose twists and turns are determined by psychology alone – that, and a plot device called Infermiterol, the fictive ultimate in slumber medications.
Either way, the novel carries no lack of meaning. When literature focuses on women being alone, it often links the lonesomeness to abandonment, at best; at worst, it’s linked to problems of personality or fate. Lone women are rarely cast as enterprising weirdos, the kind who drive the existential plots of certain French novels. Just as Eileen, Moshfegh’s breakthrough novel, featured a protagonist whose richest delight involved spacing out on the bathroom floor after a laxative session, her new hero exhibits a considerable range that doesn’t include a deep concern for likeability.
When you say this of Moshfegh’s books, they sound a bit like Bukowski, and a certain depravity is part of the charm. But she’s wittier and spikier, like Gary Lutz or Ann Beattie; she’s still a graceful writer, she’s just playing in a whole other land of taste. As the plot moves woozily towards September 11, it becomes clearer how much of the book depends on her humour. Like most doomsayers, she needs magnetism to deliver her dark messages, making sure you can’t quite look away. CR
Jonathan Cape, 304pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 4, 2018 as "Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation". Subscribe here.