My Year of Rest and Relaxation 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 withe cream and six sugar 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. When I though of it, I ordered delivery from the Thai restaurant across the street, or a tuna salad platter from the diner on First Avenue. I’d wake up to find voice messages on my cell phone from salons or spas confirming appointments I’d booked in my sleep. I always called back to cancel, which I hated doing because I hated talking to people.”

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Plot summary: A whole book of the above.

Jk. It’s about a depressed rich girl who sleeps through a year with the help of a mad combination of drugs, aka a year rest + relaxation, in the hope that when she wakes up, she will be ‘reborn’ and regain her will to live.

[1] This book is a masterclass in the shock factor. Moshfegh is amazing at building up expectation and then surprising you with something completely unlike what you were expecting.

  • “A hurricane came and went. It didn’t matter. Extraterrestrials could have invaded, locusts could have swarmed, and I would have noted it, but I wouldn’t have worried.”
  • “Her mother was dying of cancer. That, among many other things, made me not want to see her.”
  • “I hadn’t told him my father had died. I was saving it to tell him later, so he’d feel terrible.”

Some bits are just truly, ingeniously shocking,

  • “I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you’d feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide.”
  • “Nothing hurt Reva more than effortless beauty, like mine.”

if not a bit gross (I’M WARNING YOU!) 

  • “Ping Xi’s work first appeared at Duscat as part of a group show called ‘Body of Substance’, and it consisted of splatter paintings, à la Jackson Pollock, made from his own ejaculate. He claimed that he’d stuck a tiny pellet of powdered colored pigment into the tip of his penis and masturbated onto huge canvases.”
  • “I told him I wanted to prove that I wasn’t uptight – a complaint he gave because at some point I’d hesitated to give him a blow job while he sat on the toilet.”

[2] Moshfegh is attentive in dipping every sentence in cynicism-coloured paint.

  • “The sunlight tilted through the blinds once in a while, and I’d peek out to see if the leaves on the trees were dying yet.”
  • “My mother’s body stayed alive for exactly three days.”

[3] The unnamed narrator is someone who habitually represses unwelcome emotions and actively resists any kind of self-reflection:

“I told her I’d been having trouble sleeping for the past six months and then complained of despair and nervousness in social situations. But as I was reciting my practised speech, I realized it was somewhat true.”

How, then, are we supposed to figure out what is wrong with her from her narrative which alone makes up the whole novel? Moshfegh’s works around this difficulty very cleverly. She portrays the narrator’s friend, Reva, as the embodiment of everything for which she’s got the most burning distaste, and juxtaposes this disgust with her own overwhelming self-disgust, clearly signalling a similarity between Reva and her past self: after all she possesses a wardrobe that Reva grudgingly worships, despite her present dismissal of its content. When the narrator decided to give all it away to Reva, the latter’s ecstasy was near comical:

“She was like a kid in a candy store, methodically and vampirically pulling out every dress, every skirt, every blouse, hangers and all.”

[4] The narrator’s internalised mournful acceptance of sexism as norm permeate the narrative with haunting affectlessness:

  •  “They would be the ones running museums and magazines, and they’d only hire me if they thought I might fuck them.”
  • “If I had been a man, I may have turned to a life of crime. But I looked like an off-duty model.”
  • “I remembered watching her ‘put her face on’, as she called it, and wondering if one day I’d be like her, a beautiful fish in a man-made pool, circling and circling circling, surviving the tedium only because my memory can contain only what is imprinted on the last few minutes of my life, constantly forgetting my thoughts.” *

* Beautiful metaphor, btw.

[5] *gasp* do I spy COMPULSION TO REPEAT here?! (see *)

[6] The language is snide and mercilessly bleak in a way that reminds me of The Bell Jar. Deals with similar themes too. Death of parent – check. Suicide – check. Mental health – check. Sexism – check. Sexual violence – check.  It’s like a more dramatic OTT version of The Bell Jar

[7] The book becomes a bit monotonous towards the end: you’ll feel like you’ve had enough of the narrator’s rant about her disgust for herself, other people, life, because that’s basically what the whole book has been up until this point. Although the poetic ending (which has a sense of diseased beauty to it) redeems it to some extent (see [9]).

[8] There are some really nice poetic bits near the end. I’m reminded of Catcher in the Rye.

  • “One day, I brought the white fox fur coat with me to the Goodwill and handed it to the teenager taking donations through the door around the corner from the store entrance. … I watched his hands smooth the furm as though he were assessing its value. Maybe he’d steal it and give it to his girlfriend, or his mother. I hoped he would.”
  • “I found my way into the Met one afternoon in early September. I guess I wanted to see what other people had done with their lives, people who had made art alone, who had stared long and hard at bowls of fruit. I wondered if they’d watched the grapes wither and shrivel up, and if, before they threw the shriveled strand of grapes away, they’d eaten a few.”

[9] (SPOILER ALERT) The book gives a nice example of overcoming abjection through death (see The Powers of Horror by Julia Kristeva). Only in death (/near-death aka drug-induced coma) can the narrator recover herself from (self-)disgust, that is, abjection. The very last chapter gives another example:

“On September 11, I went out and bought a few TV/VCR at Best Buy so I could record the news coverage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. … And I continue to watch it, usually on a lonely afternoon, or any other time I doubt that life is worth living, or when I need courage, or when I am bored. Each time I see the woman leap off the Seventy-eighth floor of the North Tower … I am overcome by awe … There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.”

[10] Interesting play on the idea of sleep. The narrator asleep to the world around her as she awakes herself to her (self-)disgust, whilst Reva is asleep to the ugliness of the world as she stays awake in its midst.

[11] Moshfegh raises an interesting point about the narrator being limited by her beauty,

“Think of your beauty as an Achilles’ heel. You’re too much on the surface. … It’s hard to look past what you look like.”

and later artists being blinded by their talent:

“Did they wish they’d crushed those withered grapes between their fingers and spent their days walking through fields of grass or being in love or confessing their delusions to a priest or starving like the hungry souls they were, begging for alms in the city square with some honesty for once? Maybe they’d lived wrongly. Their greatness might have poisoned them.”

[12] The dodginess of the narrator’s is truly hilarious. There first ever conversation is as follows:

“Do you work for the policed?” she asked me.

“No, I work for an art dealer , at a gallery in Chelsea.”

“Are you FBI?”

“No.”

“CIA?”

“No, why?”

“I just have to ask these questions. Are you DEA? FDA? NICB? NHCAA? Are you a private investigatir hired by any private or governmental entity? Do you work for a medical insurance company? Are you a drug dealer? Drug addict? Are you a clinician? A med student? Getting pills for an abusive boyfriend or employer? NASA?”

Verdict: Overall a very enjoyable read, but due to [7] I’m going to say Maaybe recommend.

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