My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh, Jonathan Cape, 304 pp, ISBN: 978-1787330412
In a New York Times review of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Man-Booker-Prize-nominated debut novel, Eileen, Lily King wrote that Moshfegh’s tone was so fresh and controlled, “you wouldn’t care if nothing much ever happened”. As if to test that premise, Moshfegh has written a novel in which a young woman attempts to whittle her life back to the very extremity of stillness. If critics complained, as Eileen Battersby did in The Irish Times, that Moshfegh’s writing maps a brutal, dehumanising vision of the world, Moshfegh’s response is to create a protagonist who is engaged in the act of deliberately dehumanising herself. Set in 2000 in New York, My Year of Rest and Relaxation follows an unnamed, self-described WASP who decides to sleep for an entire year, aided by an erratic psychiatrist and an endless variety of sedatives and opioids, both real and imaginary.
At the novel’s centre are two young, wealthy white women, the narrator and the only friend who still tolerates her, Reva. Theirs is a world of gruelling personal improvement; they indulge in endless manicures, pedicures, waxings, face-peels, colonics. The buffet of psychotropics that is offered to the protagonist seems to fit easily into this picture. This was, supposedly, the era of “cosmetic pharmacology”, the term that Peter D Kramer popularised in his 1993 book Listening to Prozac. Just as cosmetic surgery procedures had been normalised in the United States, Kramer argued that psychotropic drugs were increasingly prescribed, not to alleviate the symptoms of debilitating mental illness, but as yet another tool of self-improvement.
Yet the narrator is totally uninterested in moulding herself into a productive, cheerful member of society. Nor is she precisely suicidal, though the thought crosses her mind occasionally. Orphaned, disillusioned with the contemporary art world and insulated from the mechanics of survival by a large inheritance, she can find no particular reason to participate in the world at all. And so, she chooses not to. She is helped in this project by an erratic psychiatrist named Dr Tuttle who communicates through pseudo-mysticism and a string of Big Pharma conspiracy theories. Soon she is sleeping fifteen hours a night, at least. As the novel progresses, the protagonist descends deeper into unconsciousness with the help of a powerful, fictional drug called Infermiterol. She sleeps for days at a time, until the muscles in her eyes begin to atrophy. There is, at least initially, something liberating about the way the protagonist frames her hibernation. She is like a kind of anti-Thoreau, coming out of the woods to live aimlessly.
Six years before Moshfegh’s narrator begins her hibernation, Elizabeth Wurtzel published her high successful and controversial memoir Prozac Nation. In it, she wrote: “I usually sleep ten hours a night but often it’s many more. I am trapped in my body as I have never been before. I am perpetually zonked.” Her memoir became a cultural touchstone, its title a shorthand for the apparently morally decrepit and chemically reliant generation of which Moshfegh’s narrator is a reluctant member. Both Prozac Nation and My Year of Rest and Relaxation focus on a young, Ivy-league educated woman whose life is derailed by mental illness, both its symptoms and its cures. They share a fascination for the most grotesque and banal aspects of being in a body, particularly a woman’s body. Wurtzel describes childhood experiences of self-harm with frankness that was then rare. Moshfegh extends an offhand candour to everything from sex to shit to the scum in the corners of her protagonist’s eyes. Moshfegh’s book is tauter, dryer, wittier. Still, it is tempting to imagine her narrator picking up Wurtzel’s memoir and putting it to one side, perhaps unable to see the connection between them, or perhaps simply unable to see through the narcotic gauze long enough to focus.
Since Moshfegh published Eileen in 2016, a consensus has built up about her work. Her novels are described as cynical and disgust-driven and debated on those terms. But disgust is a shallow emotion and My Year of Rest and Relaxation is not a shallow book. Certainly, Moshfegh’s protagonist is never “likable”: she is arrogant, self-absorbed and cruel; she projects her hollow sadness onto the scaffolding of the world around her. Yet there is a lot about her that is humane, even tender. Moshfegh offers us plenty of evidence that her narrator’s vision of the world is not the full picture; that she is often wrong about both herself and the world around her. She claims that she feels “no sorrow” about her parents’ deaths yet she is haunted by them; she keeps her dreams about them a secret from her psychiatrist. At one point she remarks that she wants to hold onto her parents’ house “the way you’d hold on to a love letter. It was proof that I had not always been alone in the world.” At the centre of her hibernation project is an attempt to mute this grief and loneliness. Her sense of control is a facade, and a thin one at that. Early in the novel, as the protagonist begins to sell her psychiatrist on the lie of her chronic insomnia, she finds that “as I was reciting my practiced speech, I realized that it was somewhat true. I wasn’t an insomniac, but I was miserable.” Beneath her caustic dismissal of the world is a painful longing to be a part of it, to be loved by someone other than her emotionally abusive sometime boyfriend and her self-absorbed friend. In her deliberately monotonous life, tiny interactions acquire meaning. Of her trash chute, she observes “it made me feel important, like I was participating in the world […] the things I touched touched things other people had touched. I was contributing. I was connecting.” My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a much a novel about interconnectedness as it is about isolation.
Like Wurtzel, and like Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus, Moshfegh has been at the centre of repetitive, long-running debates around the depiction of “repulsive” women in literature. Commenting on the issue in an interview with electricliterature.com, she remarked: “the notion of likeability is a concern that the book industry has because there are people who read to feel nothing. […] As an artist, I say fuck that debate. Let’s be done with it.” The depth and bitter charm of her work make a convincing case.
Catherine Kelly is from Dublin. She is currently completing an MA in Contemporary Literature, Culture and Theory at King’s College London.