the most exciting book of 2018 is about a girl sleeping for a year
Ottessa Moshfegh's 'My Year of Rest and Relaxation' puts a darkly comedic spin on our self-care obsession.
There’s a book that came out this summer that offers a radical alternative to our 2018 obsession with self-care — just sleep for a year! The unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s ingenious, darkly comedic My Year of Rest and Relaxation is an orphaned 24-year-old adrift in the listless luxury of her Manhattan existence. She’s beautiful and Columbia-educated and blonde and privileged, living off her dead parents’ inheritance. She binges Whoopi Goldberg movies before binging even became a thing — because this book is set in the glossy potential of the year before 9/11.
The narrator has one person in her life beyond her psychiatrist, a “best friend” named Reva who she only sees when Reva invites herself over to the narrator’s cluttered Upper East Side apartment to complain about her own problems. “I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you’d feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide,” is how the narrator describes visits from the closest person to her on the planet.
Ottessa Moshfegh grew up in Boston suburbia, and now lives in LA after years of doing everything from teaching in Manhattan to working at a punk bar in China. After writing a critically acclaimed novella and a series of gritty short stories, she published her debut novel, the electric noir Eileen, in 2015 . That project “started out as a joke” to follow every rule of writing a bestselling novel from a literal how-to book — because she was “broke” and “wanted to be famous.” Moshfegh has emphasized in other interviews that she’s “not going to be making cappuccinos” for a living because she’s “fucking brilliant.” But the thing is, she actually really, thoroughly is, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a perfect depiction of what it means to be alive today. This time around, Moshfegh breaks every rule of what should make a story thrilling.
The novel speeds to the best last page of any book I’ve likely ever read. It completes Moshfegh’s bridge between the time we live in today — the politics, the apocalyptic tint to our lives, the impulses we indulge in and desires that we have — with the numbing chaos of the months surrounding 9/11. Two periods of time when it feels like everything’s ending, but maybe everything’s starting all over again too.
Early in the novel, having just been fired from her pretentious art gallery job, the narrator tells us her initial manifesto for sleeping for a year:
“I knew in my heart that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.”
Yet, honestly, this idea of self-care and renewal via extended hibernation doesn’t sound that wildly different than something Gwyneth Paltrow and her cult of GOOP would come up with. (Gwyneth has even tried being stung by bees in the hopes of attaining beauty and youthfulness, telling the New York Times that it’s a “thousands of years old treatment called apitherapy. People use it to get rid of inflammation and scarring. It’s actually pretty incredible if you research it.”)
The narrator’s search for a year-long hibernation is essentially sponsored by a psychiatrist named Dr. Tuttle. The narrator invents the most wild nightmares to gain access to harsher and harsher meds, and in the year 2000, Dr. Tuttle is more than happy to comply. My Year of Rest and Relaxation goes on to morph into a sort of deranged love letter to self-medication, the narrator describing her pill-popping as poetically as someone would their crush: “I counted out three lithium, two Ativan, five Ambien. That sounded like a nice mélage, a luxurious free fall into velvet blackness… Ativan to me felt like fresh air. My mouth watered. Good strong American sleep.”
Yet one (fictional) medication called Infermiterol really does the trick for her — each pill she pops resulting in a sugar-sweet three-day-long blackout. After one of these blackouts, she wakes up in her apartment with the news on low volume on the TV, a low drone about worldwide flooding and disaster. The narrator pushes herself upright off her sofa — “the blood [draining] out of [her] brain like sand in an hourglass” — to discover a stamp for a club she’d never been to across her knuckles. On her coffee-table there’s an empty half-gallon jug of gin, empty ice-cube trays, lines of crushed Xanax, a butcher knife, a ripped out page from a book called The Art of Happiness, and most crucially, Polaroids of all the beautiful strangers she’d gone clubbing with during her blackout: “Girls in dark lipstick, boys with red pupils. Male twins dressed as heroin-thin Elvises in slouchy gold lamé suits high-fived in front of a Basquiat rip-off. There was a girl holding a rat on a leash hooked to the bicycle chain she wore around her neck.”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation could easily swing into a memory-bending thriller, or a dark odyssey into the dangers of the pharmaceutical industry — but instead Moshfegh anchors it to her premise of a girl who’s simply, truly, lost — a perfect portrait of someone who desperately wants to be asleep, in order to finally feel awake.