My Year of Rest and Relaxation
|July 10, 2018|
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a 2018 novel by American author Ottessa Moshfegh. Moshfegh's second novel, it is set in New York City in 2000 and 2001 and follows an unnamed protagonist as she gradually escalates her use of prescription medications in an attempt to sleep for an entire year.
Background and publication
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is Ottessa Moshfegh's second novel, following Eileen (2015, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize), as well as a novella (McGlue, 2014) and a short story collection (Homesick for Another World, 2017). Moshfegh initially planned My Year of Rest and Relaxation to be focused primarily on the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, even reaching out to terrorism expert Paul Bremer, though she called off the interview and the project took a different tack.
Of her experience writing the novel, Moshfegh said:
I feel like the book was successful in that I graduated out of a lot of those concerns by writing the book. When I wrote the book, my passion and anger were located much more outwardly and so the tone of the narrator, who I think a very angry person, is not something I relate to anymore.
The unnamed narrator, a slender and beautiful blonde from a wealthy WASP family, is a recent graduate of Columbia University, where she majored in art history. During her senior year in college, both of her parents died—first her father from cancer, then her mother in a suicide caused by an interaction between psychiatric medications and alcohol. Now living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and increasingly dissatisfied with her post-collegiate life, the narrator finds a conveniently incompetent psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, who freely prescribes a variety of sleeping, anti-anxiety, and anti-psychotic medications for the insomnia the narrator reports as her complaint; in fact, the narrator hopes to spend as few hours of the day awake as possible, lulling herself with pills and middle-brow movies she plays on repeat on her VCR, until the aging machine breaks down.
When the narrator is fired from her job in an art gallery, she chooses to live off a combination of unemployment payments and her inheritance, while attempting to sleep for a year in an effort to reset her life. But her "year of rest and relaxation" is regularly interrupted. Her college roommate Reva (who unabashedly envies the narrator's wealth and appearance) makes frequent unannounced visits, which the narrator allows despite her disdain for Reva's social-climbing and annoyance at having to listen to Reva's problems—her own mother's terminal cancer, a frustrating affair with her married boss. The narrator is also occasionally in contact with an older boyfriend Trevor (a banker who works in the World Trade Center), though he frequently cuts off their relationship to date women his own age, returning when one of them has dumped him or occasionally in response to the narrator's pleading.
The narrator initially makes trips out of her apartment only to a local bodega, Dr. Tuttle's office, and the Rite Aid to fill her prescriptions. But as she takes stronger and stronger medications, she begins leaving the apartment in her sleep, among other things to go to nightclubs (or so she gathers from Polaroid photographs and glitter she discovers when she awakes from her multi-day blackout). She also wakes up on a train headed toward the funeral of Reva's mother on New Year's Eve 2000. Convinced these activities—which have no appeal to the narrator in her conscious hours—are disrupting her efforts at complete rest, she decides she needs to sleep locked inside her apartment. She contacts Ping Xi, an artist represented by the gallery where she used to work, who agrees to bring her food and other necessities for four months in exchange for being allowed to make any kind of art project he wishes while she is unconscious: the only requirement is that all trace of him be gone when she wakes every three days to eat, bathe, and take another pill to put her under again. To prepare, she empties her apartment, giving her designer clothes to the ever-covetous Reva, who has just been dumped by her boss—unaware that she is pregnant, he arranged a promotion that would transfer her out of his office and to the company's office in the World Trade Center. Reva plans to have an abortion; the narrator sleeps until June 1.
When she wakes, she finds the plan has worked. She readjusts to life slowly, spending hours over the summer of 2001 sitting in a park and refurnishing her once-expensively decorated apartment with mismatched, used furniture from Goodwill. But as she hoped, her world view has been transformed by her rest: her contempt for Reva has evaporated and for the first time she earnestly reciprocates her friend's previously-insistent declarations that "I love you", though now Reva is the one who has become distant. The narrator calls Reva once more, on her birthday in August, but Reva brushes off the call. They never speak again; on September 11, Trevor is out of town on his honeymoon but Reva dies in the terror attack on the World Trade Center. The narrator goes out to buy a new VCR to tape the news coverage, returning as time passes to watch the video, in particular footage of a woman leaping out of the tower.
Style and themes
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is narrated in the first person, establishing a personage critics describe as "an antihero...[who] resists every stereotype of the female nurturer" and "hypnotically unlikeable", perhaps even "an attempt to see just how 'unlikeable' characters can get." Reviewing the novel in Pacific Standard, Rebecca Stoner called the narrator's "acid insights into the various aspects of life that disgust her...one of the primary pleasures of the novel" and in the Chicago Review of Books, Lincoln Michel similarly finds the "narrator...an enjoyable hater whose observations are both caustic and insightful." In The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino read the novel differently: though she too notes the novel's "withering attention to the gleaming absurdities of pre-9/11 New York City, an environment...beset with delusional optimism, horrifically carefree," Tolentino felt My Year of Rest and Relaxation departed from Moshfegh's earlier work featuring "characters who are repulsed by themselves, or who are themselves repulsive." She argued that this novel "instead builds a façade of beauty and privilege around her characters, forcing the reader to locate repulsion somewhere deeper: in effort, in daily living, in a world that swings between tragic and banal."
Told in the present tense (while the narrator includes some memories of her past, she recounts them as thoughts occurring to her in the present rather than as flashbacks), the novel is "tuned to a hyper-contemporary frequency," Tolentino wrote, with the narrator's indifference to real-life events highlighting the way her plan for self-improvement by tuning out the world contrasts with "the oft-preached mandates of authenticity or engagement". (At the same time, Tolentino suggests, "There is something in this liberatory solipsism that feels akin to what is commonly peddled today as wellness.")
Critics frequently comment on the "blackly funny" tone of the novel, though in The Guardian, Anthony Cummins notes that "by the end, this comically adversarial narrative" has expanded well beyond comedy, "hitting multiple marks at once: as an art-school prank, a between-the-lines tale of displaced grief and a pitiless anatomy of gender injustice, it also offers (via the inevitable 9/11 ending) a dark state-of-America fable." Accordingly, critics vary widely in their interpretation of the novel's themes. While some read it as a critique of capitalism or an examination of "self-care", Stoner also points to "an anachronistic belief in the sanctity of art...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.'"
According to literary review aggregator Literary Hub, the novel received very positive reviews. In Slate, Laura Miller praised the novel, saying, "Moshfegh excels here at setting up an immediately intriguing character and situation, then amplifying the freakishness to the point that some rupture feels inevitable." The Publisher's Weekly review found the book "captivating and disquieting...showcas[ing] Moshfegh's signature mix of provocation and dark humor." Several reviews, including Miller and Publishers Weekly, felt "the novel drags a bit in the middle", though the ending was widely praised, with Miller saying Moshfegh "found a more satisfying way to resolve the plot" in My Year of Rest and Relaxation than in her first novel, Eileen.
Reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino wrote, "Ottessa Moshfegh is easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible." In The New York Times, Dwight Garner was more hesitant in his praise, but ultimately concluded: "Moshfegh writes with so much misanthropic aplomb, however, that she is always a deep pleasure to read. She has a sleepless eye and dispenses observations as if from a toxic eyedropper."
- Michel, Lincoln (2018-08-08). "The Pleasures of Hating in 'My Year of Rest and Relaxation'". Chicago Review of Books. Retrieved 2019-05-16.
- Stoner, Rebecca (12 July 2018). "'My Year Of Rest And Relaxation' is a Narcoleptic Triumph". Pacific Standard. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
- Levy, Ariel (2018-07-02). "Ottessa Moshfegh's Otherworldly Fiction". ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2019-05-15.
- Juzwiak, Rich. "Looking Back With Ottessa Moshfegh at My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Her Year of Pain and Disorientation". Jezebel. Retrieved 2019-06-16.
- "My Year of Rest and Relaxation". Publishers Weekly. February 12, 2018. Retrieved 2019-05-15.
- Tolentino, Jia (11 July 2018). "Ottessa Moshfegh's Painful, Funny Novel of a Young Woman's Chemical Hibernation". The New Yorker. Retrieved 24 August 2018.
- Cummins, Anthony (2018-07-22). "My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – caustic and acute". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 2019-05-16.
- Fallon, Claire (2018-07-14). "This Year's Hot New Self-Care Regimen: Sleeping Through The Whole Thing". HuffPost. Retrieved 2019-05-15.
- "My Year of Rest and Relaxation". Literary Hub. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
- Harrison, John (11 July 2018). "My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh review – an experiment in oblivion". The Guardian. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
- Miller, Laura (2018-07-19). "Perhaps You Could Get Away From It All by Sleeping for a Year". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2019-05-15.
- Tolentino, Jia (2018-07-11). "Ottessa Moshfegh's Painful, Funny Novel of a Young Woman's Chemical Hibernation". ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2019-07-29.
- Garner, Dwight (2018-07-02). "A Sleeping Beauty Hopes Hibernation Is the Answer to All Life's Problems". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-07-29.
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation reading and interview with Ottessa Moshfegh at Politics and Prose on July 25, 2018, via YouTube