‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ by Ottessa Moshfegh is easily one of the oddest books I have read. The story premise sounds ridiculous: Our unnamed character decides to hibernate for a year to sleep away from her depression and wake up a new person. She is tired of the world. Alongside ridiculous is an insight into the heart and spirit of a tender, vulnerable, and exhausted woman.
The story is set in the 2000s, with our narrator being a young, thin, beautiful, Columbia graduate. She is a privileged woman. She has an inheritance that can allow her to sleep for a whole year in an apartment in Manhattan. She has a humourous shrink, Dr. Tuttle who prescribes her all kinds of medications without a check. There is Reva, our narrator’s best (and only) friend. Reva is extremely materialistic and jealous of our narrator (“No fair“, as she would say always when her friend gets something she doesn’t). Ottessa’s heroine also has an on-again-off-again boyfriend Trevor who treats her terribly. Her parents have died recently – dad of cancer and mom of overdose. They have been largely indifferent to her existence and her childhood hasn’t been really happy. She has taken to movies and drugs after their death – Whoopi Goldberg is her favorite.
For starters, if you dislike literature that has dark humor, icky descriptions of all bits of life that are not glossy, this book is not for you. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is filled with sardonic humor, brutal confessions, and vivid descriptions of gross parts of existence. It is certainly not a breezy read or for the faint-hearted. It is a story of escape, of privilege, of confessions that can make your brain turn ice cold.
In the very beginning of the book, you can understand the pain point of our narrator is her upbringing: Her dad is an indifferent, snide professor who is even apathetic towards his own death. Her mom is an alcoholic who once fed her own little girl Valium to keep her from crying.
One thing that is often missed in many book reviews and analysis is that sleeping is one of the things that our unnamed narrator and her mom did together. They would sleep away her school time and wake up many hours later. This might be one of the reasons she chooses to sleep as a form of escape instead of drugs, alcohol, or work.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a book that can get repetitive: Sleep, lie to Dr. Tuttle that you have insomnia and take more medication, meet Reva, despise her, take more medication, watch some movies, sleep. But surprisingly, the repetitiveness is what I enjoyed most about the book. The sentences are short, snide, and cutting edge. The narrator hardly ever does anything unsurprising.
What struck me the most is how self-aware the narrator is about her own privilege and faults. There are instances when she recognizes that she is being a terrible friend to Reva and that would end the friendship once Reva realizes how toxic it is. She says to Ping Xi that she is born into privilege and is not going to squander it because she’s not a ‘moron’.
Our narrator is unlikable. That is one of the reasons she is so fun to read. But the reader can understand her quest to become a better person, to change her spirit, even if that transformed character is not half as fun to write about.
My favorite parts are the one with Dr. Tuttle, especially the running gag where she always forgets the tragic death of our narrator’s parents. Irritated, at last, our narrator tells Dr. Tuttle that she has killed her mom. The whole scene is as amusing as it is horrifying. Dr. Tuttle believes to follow impulse rather than reason, says orphans are often psychotic, and other horrible (yet humorous in context) things. The way our narrator hates Reva and everything else in the world makes the pleasures of hating apparent.
There were parts that were spine chilling: when our narrator tries to elicit emotions by remembering her father’s death but is numb, or when she tries to get nostalgic for her house but knows that those false happy memories don’t exist, and when she tries to be a good friend to Reva, but all she can say is (many times as her catchphrase), “Gross, Reva.”
The last part of our narrator’s epiphany never seems like one: Take Inferitomol (a drug that makes her blackout and unconscious for 3 days) for a period of 6 months and stay locked up in the apartment. The only difference is now she is decisive. She has taken a decision that after 6 months if she does not wake up a different person, she would jump off her window.
She has entered into a barter system with Ping Xi (an artist she hates but trusts just as much) to bring her food and whatever she writes on a post-it note to her. He cannot leave a trace of his presence during this experiment. In return, she lets her unconscious state be used for his art.
Curious how it goes?
She does become a different person. It takes time. How much sleeping for a year helped her is debatable. The world doesn’t really change. But our narrator does. She becomes one of those people she hated: those optimistic about life, those grateful to be alive.
As her former self would’ve said at that, “Gross, Reva”
Find this book on Amazon here.