I had never heard of Ottessa Moshfegh before My Year of Rest and Relaxation popped up on the Leiden Book Club list for March, so I was intrigued and excited to discover a new author. My local bookstore was sold out of copies when I first inquired about it.
‘That’s a really popular one,’ the sales assistant told me, with derision in her voice. I shrugged and asked them if they could order me a copy. It arrived a week later and I got reading. Regrettably, I now understand the sales assistant’s disdain.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is the author’s second novel. Set in New York city in the year 2000, an unnamed woman narrates for the reader her year spent in a drug-induced haze of pharmaceutically aided sleep. Bored with her job in an art gallery and unstimulated by the world around her, our narrator attempts to sleep through an entire year of her life, hoping she will wake up in twelve months’ time renewed and refreshed. Aided by a psychiatrist so incompetent you might wonder whether she is even a real person and by increasingly more dubious combinations of drugs, the frankly dislikeable narrator navigates complicated relationships and struggles to relate to a world she feels she doesn’t belong in.
It’s an interesting premise, one that sounds like it will deliver some smart critiques on prescription drug use, alienation and privilege. The novel, however, is a clunkily written fare that, though darkly funny at some points, fails to really say much of anything at all.
The biggest disappointment for me was that the book failed utterly to convince me that the events really were taking place in the years 2000 and 2001. The author seemed the think that reeling off headlines for a particular date or running down a list of actresses in their primes would be enough to convince us that this really is the year 2000 but continual use of anachronistic language and concepts meant I constantly had to remind myself when this was supposedly set. It felt as though everything I read was tinged with a shade of 2019 millennial distress that feels out of place in a 2000-2001 setting.
As the novel progresses the narrator trundles through in her druggie, sleepy haze, her misuse of prescription drugs goes from vaguely worrying, to ludicrous, to utterly unbelievable. Her psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, reads like a caricature of a caricature of a therapist, complete with cats wandering around her home office and a neck brace you are never sure she really needs. Though some of the drugs the narrator ingests in her pursuit of oblivion are real, others are not. The ‘infermiterol’ the narrator uses to sleep for three days at a time for several months towards the end of the novel is so improbably explained that I was wholly unable to suspend my disbelief long enough to take this part of the novel seriously and I don’t think I ever really understood what the point of the whole thing was.
That goes to the crux of my main problem with the novel. Despite some gorgeously funny critiques of the snobby art world, and an exquisitely written final page, I was constantly waiting for the penny to drop with this novel. I was waiting for it to take on some grander, deeper meaning, some brilliant and subversive examination of society. Maybe it is there, under the surface. The fact remains, however, that even after reading and re-reading this novel it still feels like an unconvincing and convoluted anecdote that I’m not in on. And regardless of lofty authorial intentions, the novel doesn’t quite live up to the premise it promises its readers.
In April we are reading ‘Motherhood’ by Sheila Heti