Book Review: Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”
By Nathanael Bueno
Being rich, hot, and blonde has its struggles.
At least that’s true for the protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Moshfegh writes a sardonic historical fiction set in early 2000s New York City. The story is told in a darkly humorous way through the lens of a beautiful and wealthy 24-year-old Columbia graduate who is also a lazy misanthrope that struggles immensely with a sort of depression.
She has it all: an apartment in New York City, an Ivy League degree, and her parents’ inheritance, but she still feels an emptiness inside. Her solution: intensely medicating herself with a disturbing amalgamation of drugs to undergo a year-long hibernation. The unnamed narrator’s year of sleep is how she plans to save herself.
In June 2000, the narrator begins her hibernation endeavors. She’d wearily maneuver herself around her apartment while in this threshold consciousness, through a mundane routine of drinking watery bodega coffee, watching VHS tapes of Whoopi Goldberg while snacking, and then, of course, ingesting a blend of sleep and mood-stabilizing pills to catch some heavy z’s.
Obtaining this array of pharmaceuticals happened during the narrator’s serendipitous encounter with a perfectly imperfect psychiatrist. She’d found Dr. Tuttle in the phone book and she is by far the most comically unhinged doctor in the field of psychiatry. Dr. Tuttle is so persistently deranged, and her dialogue with the narrator is just wickedly funny. I questioned how she has a medical license in the first place. The narrator met with Dr. Tuttle weekly, and she would maniacally do the most outrageous patient evaluation, then prescribe the narrator a range of pills.
Despite the narrator being so lonely, she makes no effort to create or maintain her relationships because she “hates everyone and everything.” The motives behind her being self-absorbed and alienated unfold throughout the story.
She would sporadically enter reveries about her parents who died during her junior year of college. Her father was well-educated and died from cancer. Her mother was so vain and neglectful. She always resented her daughter and once told her, “You know, when you were a baby, I crushed Valium into your bottle.” A very troubled adolescence followed the narrator, which built up to this hibernation project of hers.
Despite her cruelty and misanthropy, the narrator clings to one friend, Reva, who was the narrator’s roommate in college. Reva was never treated well by the narrator, but she’d still swing by her apartment to restlessly gab to the narrator about her champagne problems. Reva was her only tether to reality, but as she sticks around more, the narrator’s depression only deepens.
Ironically, the narrator keeps a polaroid of Reva tucked into the frame of her mirror, “but the photo was really meant as a reminder of how little I enjoyed her company if I felt like calling her later while I was under the influence,” the narrator explained. I found their relationship to be hilariously obscure.
The narrator has this grotesque and cynical attitude toward the modern world and everyone around her. She goes into such grime detail about its ugliness through imagery that the reader can shamefully relate to, which is what makes this story so engaging.
While this book was set during the start of the new millennium, this story's elements relate to our current generation. There is no doubt that most people struggle with deep feelings of loneliness and anxiety at some point in their life, especially in recent years.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation was released in July 2018, and just two years later was the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdown, everyone was doing some semblance of what the narrator was doing, but we were drinking dalgona coffee instead of one from a bodega.
This story employs the philosophy of absurdism, which is a belief that living, in general, is absurd. The narrator goes through her year of rest hating all aspects of life, and it is questioned if it's just her or everything around her that is making her a cynic. Throughout the story, we shift between fragments of her painful adolescence and what mundanely goes on in her current state.
During one of the lowest points of my adolescence, I remember laying in bed for an entire day under my covers pretending that I was living in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. I felt immense exhaustion from everything and was completely unmotivated to do anything. I thought there was ultimately no point in all of this and couldn’t bear being sentient. This absurdity of existence is something that can be felt by many. Just like the protagonist of this book, I simply slept because there is nothing more rejuvenating for the human body than a little shut-eye. But, of course, everything is good in moderation.
If you are feeling the absurdity of life, there is always someone to talk to. Not only are our human bodies designed to restore from rest, but also from connection and relationships. The inherent pain of the human experience isn’t something that has to be endured alone. In fact, the narrator had Reva until the very end.
On the final stretch, Moshfegh shows a shift in the narrator’s hopeless worldview. After having completed her year-long metamorphosis, she simply woke up and gained this new appreciation for life. In my opinion, I think that the ending was a little too abrupt, and saw no complete character transformation for the protagonist. However, that rather shows how humans aren’t so quick to change, which allows the reader to sympathize with the narrator.
There is something so extraordinary about Moshfegh’s writing. It is a type of writing that sticks with you because it’s very shocking and dark. It’s simultaneously humorous and tragic, and the whole story flows very well. This is one of the few books I’ve read that was able to evoke genuine laughter. If you want to read about an “unlikeable” female character that you might relate to, then this should definitely be on your reading list.