Someone standing in line with Otessa Moshfegh at a Starbucks must have said aloud “I’m not sure there’s a novel that sufficiently embraces apathy brought about by woeful depression,” and Otessa said, “Hold my latte.” If that’s not a factual depiction of how this novel was conceived, then my new favorite author Ms. Moshfegh herself can come correct me. I wouldn’t mind.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a unique twist on the classic metamorphosis tale. Written to take place in the year 2000-2001, it’s a novel based heavily in our transition from 1990’s affluence and innocence and relative ease, into the early 2000’s height of terrorism and anxiety. Our narrator, nameless, lifeless, thin, beautiful, rich, orphaned, plans on spending a year in hibernation to sleep away her emotions, wrapped up in a cocoon of colorful pharmaceutical helpers. She finds herself a quack psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle (hilariously rife with terrible advice), to prescribe her every sleep aid on the market. She takes her apathy in extreme doses, a perfect prescription for a privileged white female in the midst of a foggy depression. Our narrator is as completely disinterested with herself as she is in the rest of the world, which impresses me in a way I can’t put my finger on. I’ve rarely come across a character in literary fiction so uninterested in themselves.
Juxtaposed with our narrator is her best friend from college, the sweet and try-hard Reva. Desperate to fit in, bulimic, chasing trends and having affairs with bosses, Reva is the stereotypical antithesis to our apathetic heroine. She issues Oprah-book-club axioms and sophomoric attempts at psychoanalysis, trying to establish a connection with our narrator, to no avail. In the end, her frantic running around attempting to change herself is just as ineffectual as the narrator’s standing still.
The plot, or lack thereof, rides a strange dream-like quality of repetition and haziness. Our narrator begins to black out and do things without her waking knowledge; she throws parties, goes on shopping binges, duct tapes her phone to odd places, harasses her old boyfriends, etc. Her black outs last for days and leave her totally bemused as to what she’s done. In a particularly active black out, she befriends an artist named Ping Xi who finds her mission fascinating and wants to use her as a muse. Our narrator only wants to sleep. Her observation of the outside world, and everyone dialed into it, is scathing.
I’ll hold off describing our narrator’s estranged relationship with her emotionally distant father and her cold, cruel mother. It becomes a pivotal point driving her addiction to avoidance. She does eventually emerge from her chrysalis of sleep, but the novel’s ending leaves much to be desired. It’s bittersweet—anticlimactic and effective, all at once.
“Education is directly proportional to anxiety.”
“This was how I knew the sleep was having an effect: I was growing less and less attached to life. If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was my dream.”
“I felt myself float up and away, higher and higher into the ether until my body was just an anecdote, a symbol, a portrait hanging in another world.”
“But these painters of fruit thought only of their own mortality, as though the beauty of their work would somehow soothe their fear of death. There they all were, hanging feckless and candid and meaningless, paintings of things, objects, the paintings themselves just things, objects, withering toward their own inevitable demise.”
Thanks to NetGalley for my pre-pub copy for an unbiased review.