I found Ottessa Moshfegh's new novel about a young woman's quest to spend her 26th year asleep disconcertingly relatable. "Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments," the unnamed narrator explains. "I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me." Substitute your analgesic of choice for "downers." You'll see.
Maybe I found it relatable because, as Dahlia Lithick writes about political engagement in the Trump era, "As a purely descriptive matter, it's surely true: We are all going numb." In the face of the daily assaults of the world, going numb is easier, more pleasant, seductive. "This was the beauty of sleep," the narrator explains. "Reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream."
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh's second novel, acts as a warped mirror to Americans' collective obsession with drugs, sleep, wealth, glitter, bad movies, bad art, beauty, bromides, wine, really anything that numbs the feeling of being alive. Its unnamed heroine is an orphaned blonde heiress, thin as Kate Moss, who has recently graduated from Columbia University. Her creeping sedative-and-sleep habit—14, 15 hours a day, plus a nap at lunch—gets her fired from a job at Ducat, a gallery that sells cheaply transgressive art at high prices. In her newfound unemployment, she decides to take a gap year of sorts and enlists a kooky psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, to supply her with the sedatives (and migraine medications, and anti-restless-leg medications, and so on) that she needs to "get some 'much needed-rest.'"
Moshfegh grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, a town that she estimates has the highest number of psychiatrists per capita. To hear her tell it, Moshfegh is someone whose "nature is not to feel thrilled at being alive. ... Up until my 30s, I really just wanted off the planet." It's a feeling reflected by the title of her 2017 short story collection Homesick for Another World. Her novella, McGlue, and her first novel, Eileen, shortlisted for the Man Booker and winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction, reflect a similar sense of alienation.
Moshfegh rarely touts the political implications of her work: In the 19 interviews with her that I read, she talks about politics in just four. She also avoids characterizing her work as a "little empathy machine," in the words of writer Neil Gaiman. That's not to say that My Year is an apolitical novel. In a profile in The New Yorker, Mosfegh reveals that she had originally planned for the novel to be primarily about 9/11, and even went so far as to reach out to Paul Bremer, governor of Iraq during the American occupation, for an interview.
Still, most often, Moshfegh articulates an anachronistic belief in the sanctity of art. In an interview with The Believer, she said, "I've dedicated a lot of my life as a writer to understanding how to hear the divine voice, or the music of the spheres, or whatever it is that we do when we're making art, making something out of nothing." Underneath the surface of My Year hums a faith in the power of art to rouse us, to make us believe that, though the world may feel intolerable, it remains worthwhile to "[dive] into the unknown ... wide awake."
Moshfegh's characters tend to be messed-up specimens. She allows them to recount their stories in their own idiosyncratic voices; usually, they combine a grim attitude toward others with a measure of blindness and indulgence toward themselves. They're as hypnotically unlikeable as Humbert Humbert. That's all true of the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and her acid insights into the various aspects of life that disgust her are one of the primary pleasures of the novel.
Through the figure of her best friend, Reva, the narrator dissects the disappointments of the sex-and-the-single-girl lifestyle. Young, pretty, relatively privileged, and living in the most glamorous city in the world's wealthiest nation, Reva's main source of pleasure is chewing gum. At the tail end of the girl-power '90s, Reva, who has a a bachelor's degree in economics from Columbia, works at a pink-collar job as an executive assistant, her affair with her faceless boss a very meager bonus.
Though Reva hasn't taken to her bed, she's as invested as the narrator in pursuing self-immolating behaviors. She's a functioning alcoholic, a bulimic, an obsessive dieter and gym rat, and places her trust in life philosophies culled from "self-help books and workshops that usually combined some new dieting techniques with professional development and romantic relationship skills, under the guise of teaching young women 'how to live up to their full potential.'" That many would see these behaviors as basically normal in a woman of Reva's age and social position is a reminder of how commonplace it's become to live only half awake. In contrast, our narrator's determination to sleep for a year, to truly drop out, seems like a respectable rebellion.
Our narrator is equally cutting in her depictions of the cruel beauty standards that women face, as well as their frequent disappointments in a sexual marketplace that gives men the upper hand. This is how she describes getting oral sex from her semi-boyfriend, a banker: "He had no idea what to do, but seemed overcome with his own generosity and passion, as though delaying getting his dick sucked was so obscene, so reckless, had required so much courage, he'd just blown his own mind."
In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Moshfegh said that she's become less interested in analyzing sex or gender politics as she's grown older. "I think it's mostly just capitalism," she said. In My Year, Moshfegh offers readers a character who has opted out of the capitalist rat race via narcotics, who is independently wealthy, who has slipped into retirement at 25. She declines to work at beautifying herself or dating. She consumes drugs, bad television, and bodega food—the bare minimum she needs to stay alive. She's a modern-day Oblomov, a sick economic refusenik in a society that refuses to ask difficult questions about its own health.
The novel stretches from the last years of the 20th century to the first years of the 21st. While the news of the day rarely penetrates our narrator's sleep state, it's useful to recall some of the events that preceded her year of rest and relaxation. Disaffected young people became slackers, assuming a posture of passive resistance against capitalism's erosion of meaningful, well-paying work and the possibility of human connection. As Sean O'Neal writes in The AV Club, slackers claimed to believe that "Happiness is a lie you learned on The Brady Bunch. To buy in is to sell out."
For most of the novel, our narrator does buy into a cynical ideal of happiness as nothing more than respite from pain. She dulls her grief over her parents' death, her loneliness, and her feeling that life might not be worth it, with drugs from Dr. Tuttle, who serves as a "whore to feed me lullabies." When Reva questions the soundness of this plan, our narrator asks, "If you knew what would make you happy, wouldn't you do it?" Occasionally, though, she dares to hope that there's meaning to be found outside her haze. She has repeatedly told Reva that being happy is stupid, Reva reminds her.
In 1989, Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history. Technocratic capitalism came to seem globally inevitable. Art was becoming increasingly commoditized: "Like the stock market," our narrator says, it had become "a reflection of political trends and the persuasions of capitalism, fueled by greed and gossip and cocaine." Financial prosperity led many Americans to sleepwalk through the signs of impending crisis: Like the narrator, we were shocked into a consciousness of our entanglement with a larger world on September 11th, 2001.
She watches the planes hit the towers over and over on television. It is this event—and with it the death of her only friend as the towers come down—that seems to spring her from her selfishness and languor. "Wake up!" is the ultimate imperative of Moshfegh's novel. Life is anything but a dream.