My Year of Rest and Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh
I wanted to read Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation as soon as a first read its title. I started writing these reviews as a way to ease myself back into reading and writing after months of being too tired with CFS/ME. I have felt like I have been stuck in my own year of rest and relaxation, and thought that Moshfegh’s story might hit home. After reading a description online and discovering that the rest referred to is a self-induced medicated slumber, my interest peaked even higher. I have struggled with depression on and off for most of my life, and there were times when I spent more time horizontal than I did vertical, so I felt even more of a connection to this book without even reading it. To read a book about a chosen and self-induced exhaustion during my own unchosen exhaustion, felt like the perfect way to reflect on my own mental health victories – even though I may feel parallels to the story of this woman who chooses her slumber, I am fighting to get well again and to spend more time awake.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh 4/5
After graduating from college, during which her parents died, the unnamed protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation attempts to evade responsibility, and her obvious depression, by escaping frequently into sleep; finally deciding to sleep for an entire year with help of drugs prescribed by the most dubious of therapists she could find. Punctuated only by mutually-semi-abusive visits from her friend/enemy Reva and her on-off boyfriend; and trips to the local Bodega, the book is entirely set inside the mind of a woman, almost always inside her flat, and mostly alone. The claustrophobic mix of savage satire and gross mundanity pulls you under until you forget you’re reading at all; consuming words like sleeping pills which lull you into a delicious unease.
Pop culture references dotted throughout remind the reader, nostalgically, that we are in the very early 2000s in New York. The protagonist’s obsession with Whoopi Goldberg, and numerous mentions of heroin-chic models like Kate Moss drive the era into our minds – driving you towards the year 2001…in New York. Having not read much about the book before reading, once I started to twig the big event that would almost inevitably provide an ending I began to worry – it’s going to be cheesy, isn’t it? It’s going to be too predictable. I needn’t have worried, or at least I needn’t have worried about a cliché 9/11 ending, reminiscent of Remember Me’s saccharine heartbreak (although I secretly love that film). I did, however, find the ending a little underwhelming - without giving too much away I will just say that I found the character progression surprising in a disappointing way. Although that didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment.
A tale from the perspective of a woman who is mostly asleep doesn’t initially strike one as the most obvious or gripping of concepts; it seems counterintuitive, like writing about nothing. But the slow burn of sleepy accounts of waking moments filled with bitterness for wakefulness and an apathy to the waking-world is intoxicating. Moments of cruelty from the protagonist cut through this intoxication like a knife, shocking and delicious to read (although you probably wouldn’t like to admit it).
My favourite thing about this book is those moments of meanness, of grossness, and shocking frankness from the female protagonist. Poetic portrayals of depression can teeter on the edge of being dangerously romanticised, especially when it comes to women with depression. Moshfegh does a pretty good job at showing the ugly side of the illness – how caring about nothing can make you mean and apathetic, and downright horrible. It shows how it can push away all those around you, and leave you isolated and cold. I think there aren’t enough portrayals of this in literature, and it’s refreshing to read. There definitely aren’t enough portrayals of unlikeable and difficult women in literature, and to me every self-involved and judgemental thought that ran through our protagonist’s head was a joy. I’ve read Sartre and I’ve read Nabokov, I’ve read the dark and mean thoughts that run through the heads of men, to read those of a woman was sublime. I’ve read other reviewers accusing Moshfegh of using shock tactics to grip the reader, and although the novel can be shocking, and gripping, to call them tactics, rather than just clever writing of an unpleasant woman seems unfair. If, like me, you’re tired of reading “difficult” men, and want to read some a difficult woman, I would highly recommend My Year of Rest and Relaxation.