There is something to be said about the authors who aren’t afraid to make their characters unlikeable. Often, we read fiction to fall in love with the characters, but this is not the case for Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Set in New York during 2000-2001, Moshfegh introduces her readers to a self-absorbed bitch – the novel’s unnamed narrator. Early on she describes herself as, ‘tall and thin and blonde and pretty and young.’ She is all of those things, as well as insanely privileged, living in an apartment on the Upper East Side paid for with the money she inherited from her parents. She dislikes most people, including her best friend Reva who she reminds not to call her if she was ‘under the influence,’. But there is a sadness to this protagonist’s story; she is depressed and – unbeknownst to her – grieving the death of her parents. This motivates her to take prescription drugs and hibernate for a year with the intention of starting afresh. Moshfegh’s narrative is both haunting and hilarious as she plays with the lives of privileged people who clearly have their issues.
It doesn’t take too long for readers to notice that this novel is about addiction to sleep, pills, and Whoopi Goldberg films, which are the only things that provide our narrator with any happiness. We follow her through this relentless existence, and along the way are introduced to questionable side characters. There is Reva, who struggles with bulimia but is deemed by our narrator as a ‘slave to vanity and status,’ and Trevor, the Wall Street ‘recurring ex-boyfriend’ whose manipulative behaviour and views on satisfying sex could be considered abusive. And then her parents, who both died during her college years but were emotionally distant even while they were alive. There is also Dr. Tuttle, the psychiatrist who comes out with insights like, ‘“A lot of psychic diseases get passed around in confined public spaces. I sense your mind is too porous.”’ Possibly one of the most ludicrous characters in modern literature, Dr. Tuttle prescribes the narrator with all the drugs she needs for her year of rest and relaxation but also creates a lot of the novel’s farcical black humour.
We might not relate to the narrator’s problematic internal monologue, but her aspiration to simply sleep through the bad stuff feels pretty relevant. She may be rich, beautiful, and well educated, but ultimately it means nothing: she is still sad and just trying to find a way out from her pain and exhaustion. This is a novel fascinated by the different types of sadness, and the forms of desperation that come with them. The extensive mental health year our narrator takes allows us to explore the void in her life alongside the superficiality of her socialite class status. With sleep being the inescapable theme throughout the novel, often our sense of time becomes irrelevant. Readers may be shocked with the conclusion Moshfegh reaches, as you forget where the story is unfortunately heading. There is, of course, an absurdity to both the plot and the unhinged characters Moshfegh creates, but a closer understanding of the monotony of our narrators’ behaviours points to the severity of her grief and depression. Through her, readers are presented with a portrait of a vulnerable young woman. Perhaps you will struggle with the characters, but when you appreciate the message behind My Year of Rest and Relaxation you may realise that deep down, we all have that desire to change and forget those haunting things from our past, with the hope that a new life could just be a few pages ahead of us. Either that, or you might just need a really good sleep.