The misanthropic 24-year-old narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is, understandably enough, done with the world. Her only relationships – with a best friend she can’t stand and an on-again-off-again boyfriend who treats her terribly – are in shambles, her parents are dead, and she has lost her job at an avant-garde art gallery.
In a haze of depression, she enlists the help of a quack psychiatrist who provides the medications necessary for her new project: to spend the majority of the next year of her life asleep. Believing a hibernation period will revive and rejuvenate her, she checks out from her life starting in the year 2000, rarely leaving her Upper East Side apartment and living off of her inheritance and unemployment cheques. Her only social interactions are with the men who run the bodega down the street, her pill-pushing doctor, and the occasional conversation with her best friend Reva.
Important to the narrator is that she doesn’t want to die. In fact, she considers the year of rest to be a mechanism of self-preservation, an attempt to better herself and emerge with slightly less hatred of humankind. Unbeknownst to the narrator, but painfully clear to the reader, a world-changing event looms ever-closer, making her apathy towards the peppy and optimistic world of pre-9/11 New York City all the more painful to read.
“I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation. Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”
- Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is both beautiful and grotesque. Moshfegh has created a character so vile and unlikable that at times the book is almost repulsive. She doesn’t take care of herself and blatantly takes for granted the positive things in her life like money, friendship, good looks, a beautiful apartment, and her education. She does horrible things to people, ranging from ignoring her best friend on the day of her mother’s death to defacing the gallery she was fired from for sleeping on the job. Her attitude and belligerence are sharply contrasted by the piercing beauty of Moshfegh’s prose. Each sentence is its own biting commentary on the state of the narrator’s world, and it’s easy to see why Moshfegh has become such a superstar in the literary world.
With the glimpses we get into the narrator’s past we can piece together a childhood that wasn’t particularly happy, but wasn’t one of abuse or neglect either. Her apathy to the world seems to have been sparked by her parents’ general lack of interest in her. Her mother in particular could be cruel and, almost worse, disengaged. Even more troubling is the strobe-light relationship she had throughout college and in the following years with a slightly older man who treated her like she was nothing.
While some elements of her past can explain the narrator’s depressive, anti-social state, they don’t completely clarify why a person would go to the extent of sleeping for a year. It is in this area of uncertainty that Moshfegh works her magic, for My Year Of Rest And Relaxation isn’t just about the “why” of the narrator’s story, but the “why not”.
Why not go to sleep? With no one relying on her and no financial concerns, the narrator seems to have no reason to be awake, no reason to be present. Sleeping continually seems to be the one thing to bring her joy. It helps her avoid the peppy yoga-goers and fashionistas of NYC, and makes her feel like she’s actually accomplishing something. In a world obsessed with self-care, why not just sleep? As we get to know the narrator more and more throughout the book, it’s hard not to want her to sleep. At least if she’s conked out she can’t be mean to people. But as the novel progresses and the narrator’s sleeping project intensifies, it becomes clear that the people around her – those who get out of bed and trek off each morning to jobs they dislike and engage in countless interactions with people they hate all while pretending to enjoy themselves – may actually be more asleep than she is.
The novel’s inevitable and climactic ending is terrifyingly perfect. As the narrator emerges from her cocoon of pill-induced slumbering, the world around her shatters, showing her how lucky she is to be alive, but also how horrific the waking world can be. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is deep, intensely critical, and unfailingly original.