My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Imagine, if you will, taking a bona fide break from the world. You know, rolling down the shades. Turning off the light. Crawling into bed, maybe with some Cheez Doodles. Pulling the covers over your head and just … resting.

Sounds blissful, no? Now visualize doing so for the better part of a year while on a wheelbarrow’s worth of psychiatric drugs and sleep medications. Paints quite a different picture, yes?

If this premise piques your curiosity, you’ll get quite a kick out of Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. But take heed. As  in her previous works — McGlue, a novella; Eileen, her debut novel; and Homesick for Another World, a collection of darkly humorous and equally scandalous short stories — Moshfegh’s seemingly boundless appetite for the repugnant and grotesque is  on full display.

In 2015, Moshfegh grabbed the literary world’s attention by writing a book with a repulsive misanthrope at its center. Throughout much of Eileen, its protagonist, a self-obsessed and plain-old-weird 24-year-old prison secretary, recounts the squishy details of her bowel movements, drinks like a fish and is interchangeably consumed by lust and so repelled by her own sexuality that she wears her mother’s “strangulating” girdle. Some online reader reviews complained of an “unlikable narrator.” But the book was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize.

In her latest book, Moshfegh turns this antiheroine formula on its head. Similar to Eileen’s quest to find a way out of her unfulfilling life, the unnamed 24-year-old narrator of My Year of Rest … is also gunning for a way to “escape the prison of [her] mind and body.” But given that she’s statuesque and naturally thin, blond and newly wealthy from a sizable inheritance following the death of her parents, her version of oblivion is quite a different matter.

After getting fired from her job at a posh and  pretentious fine art studio in Chelsea as the “pouty knockout wearing indecipherably cool avant-garde outfits” who sits behind a desk and “ignores you when you walk into the gallery,” Sleeping Beauty (sorry, the comparison is inevitable) begins her year of “hibernating” by rejecting the traps of modern womanhood. “I stopped tweezing, stopped bleaching, stopped waxing, stopped brushing my hair,” she tells us in the first few pages. “No moisturizing or exfoliating. No shaving.”

Aside from the occasional visit to the corner bodega, S.B. also stops leaving her cushy Upper East Side New York apartment. Instead, she eats animal crackers and binges on old Whoopi Goldberg movies and “West Wing” episodes (it’s the year 2000, after all). Occasionally, she’ll wax nostalgic about her on-again, mostly off-again man-child boyfriend, Trevor. If she’s feeling ambitious, she’ll analyze her dead parents’ loveless marriage and poor parenting skills. Or, for distraction, she’ll entertain the only semi-friend she has, Reva — a gum-chewing, gym-obsessed bulimic who works as an executive assistant at a midtown brokerage insurance firm and is sleeping with her stereotypically stuffy-pants boss.

No matter how you slice it, increasingly sloth-like S.B.’s life appears to be pretty indulgent. Reading about those long stretches of puttering monotony can therefore seem, well, monotonous. (This is most definitely the point.) But to enliven the text, Moshfegh throws in a few funny trips to a Mrs. Roper-esque shrink (i.e. a quack wearing a food-stained neck brace, with a face “like a bloodhound’s, folded and drooping”), who plies S.B. with bottles of medications, including Valium, Ambien, Xanax, Nembutal and a fictional drug Moshfegh names Infermiterol, which makes S.B. do kooky things and black out for days.

By the time month eight of her sleep-athon rolls around, S.B. is so cracked out on pharmaceuticals that she’s ready to go  whole hog. For the ultimate self-annihilation challenge, it’s four months of nonstop Infermiterol with just the occasional waking day in between. Add the hack artist from the gallery whom she’s hired to take out the trash and film her descent into nihility, and it’s the perfect equation for a complete, though impeccably stylized and Instagrammable, unraveling.

“Something had to be burned and sacrificed,” Moshfegh writes. “And then the fire would burn out and die. The smoke would clear … when I woke up at last, everything — the whole world — would be new again.”

Whether or not this story line sustains your attention, there’s no doubt Moshfegh has hit on something important here. As she did so masterfully in her other books, with My Year of Rest and Relaxation she’s both pushing boundaries and testing our assumptions about what it means to be a modern woman, one who is not only poked, prodded and observed, but judged.

In her remarkably selfish but undeniably righteous narrator, Moshfegh has created a feminist of a new order — one free to do as she darn well pleases. Sure, similar to Eileen, she may not be all that “likable.” But in transgressive, provocative literature such as this, is that ever really the point?


Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle (July 10, 2018)

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