My Year of Rest and Relaxation
by Ottessa Moshfegh
I received this book in the mail, a gift from my friend Ute. “While this is not the book I’m reading in Hawaii this year, this is the last book I truly, truly loved. I hope you enjoy it too!”
For about 20 pages I struggled to understand why Ute had “truly, truly loved” this book. The protagonist was a mess: In the first three paragraphs she subsists only on animal crackers, trazodone, Ambien, and Nembutal. She showers just once a week, throws out her dirty underwear (too much trouble to wash it), and soon gives up on underwear altogether.
Occasionally a package shows up with fresh pajamas she doesn’t remember ordering. In these first few pages we also meet Trevor — her on-again, off-again boyfriend — and her best friend Reva, whom our narrator/protagonist introduces with near-contempt. We also meet the world’s worst psychologist, Dr. Tuttle, who prides herself on outwitting insurers and dabbling as a shaman.
Our 26-year-old protagonist (who never reveals her name) tells us that her parents both died while she was in college, leaving her a serviceable inheritance and a big, empty house in upstate New York.
After her graduation from Columbia University in 1995, she rents an apartment on East 84th Street and attempts the upper-class-New-York version of adulthood: “I got colonics and facials and highlights, worked out at an overpriced gym, lay in the hammam there until I went blind, and went out at night in shoes that cut my feet and gave me sciatica.”
The tall, thin, blond, pretty young woman takes a job at an art gallery. But that also rings hollow, and soon she finds herself sleeping in a closet at work to escape the banality. Eventually she gets fired, steals a bottle of her boss’ champagne, and takes a dump in the middle of the floor on her way out. It’s difficult to like this character.
And yet, the narrative is so crisp and compelling that you immerse yourself in this bizarre, deconstructed life. You watch as the protagonist starts “hibernating” in mid-June of 2000, surfaces occasionally from her stupor to have sex with Trevor, gets refills from Dr. Tuttle, and more-or-less consoles Reva as her mother succumbs to cancer.
You watch as the medication dosages increase, and then as the drugs become stronger and less predictable. Mysterious developments go unexplained — such as the appearance of a white fox-fur coat — as you dip in and out of blackouts.
As the protagonist becomes more unhinged, her determination becomes more pronounced. This woman is on a mission to achieve oblivion — and her plan near the end of the book is as clever and surprising as it is surreal. There is a method, at least, to this woman’s madness.
Still, I found the story believable as I followed the protagonist down her rabbit hole of self-induced insanity. And for this, I tip my hat to the author.
“Not a word was out of place,” I beamed to Ute. The writing really is superb — crisp and economical, and expertly paced. Moshfegh develops her characters like an impressionist painter who somehow reveals color, depth, and texture with just a few strokes of dialog.
The story itself is original too, unlike anything I’ve ever read. It’s hilarious at times, poignant sometimes, and relentlessly entertaining.
But beneath that entertaining surface, this book is also profound: How do we define sanity? What do we owe our friends? Who are we if we stop chasing status, success, security, and material possessions? Moshfegh tackles all of these questions with deft self-assurance and a delicious, dark wit.
I was sorry to reach the end. But like our protagonist, at the end of this book I was also ready to resurface, forever changed.
“On May 28, I came to, knowing this was the last time I would perform my habitual ablutions and take the Infermiterol. There was only one pill left. I swallowed it and prayed for mercy.
Light from passing cars slid through the blinds and flashed across the living room walls in yellow stripes, once, twice. I turned to face the ceiling. The floorboards gave a short screech, like the squelch of a boat turning suddenly in a storm. A hum in the air signaled the approaching wave. Sleep was coming for me. I knew the sound of it by now, the foghorn of dead space that put me on autopilot while my conscious self roamed like a goldfish. The sound got louder until it was almost deafening, then it stopped. In that silence, I began to drift down into the darkness, descending at first so slowly and steadily, I felt I was being lowered on pulleys — by angels with gold-spun ropes around my body, I imagined, and then by the electric casket-lowering device they used at both my parents’ burials, and so my heart quickened at that thought, remembering that I’d had parents once, and that I’d taken the last of the pills, and that this was the end of something, and that the ropes seemed to detach and I was falling faster. My stomach turned and I was cold with sweat, and I started writhing, first grasping at the towel under me to slow my fall, and then more wildly because that hadn’t worked, tumbling like Alice down the rabbit hole or Elsa Schneider disappearing into the infinite abyss in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The gray mist obscured my vision. Had I crossed the seal? Was the world crumbling? Calm, calm, I told myself. I could feel gravity sucking me deeper, time accelerating, the darkness around me, widening until I was somewhere else, somewhere with no horizon, an area of space that awed me in its foreverness, and I felt calm for just a moment. Then I recognized that I was floating without a tether. I tried to scream but I couldn’t. I was afraid. The fear felt like desire: Suddenly I wanted to go back and be in all the places I’d ever been, every street I’d walked down, every room I’d sat down in. I wanted to see it all again. I tried to remember my life, flipping through Polaroids in my mind. “It was so pretty there. It was interesting!” But I knew that even if I could go back, if such a thing were possible with exactitude, in life or in dreams, there was really no point. And then I felt desperately lonely. So I stuck out my arm and I grasped onto someone — maybe it was Ping Xi, maybe it was a wakefulness outside myself — and that other hand steadied me somehow as I fell past whole galaxies, mercurial waves of light strobing through my body, blinding me over and over, my brain throbbing through the pressure, my eyes leaking as though each teardrop shed a vision of my past. I felt the wetness trickle down my neck. I was crying. I knew that. I could hear myself gasp and whimper. I focused on the sound and then the universe narrowed into a fine line, and that felt better because there was a clearer trajectory, so I traveled more peacefully through outer space, listening to the rhythm of my respiration, each breath an echo of the breath before, softer and softer, until I was far enough away that there was no sound, there was no movement. There was no need for reassurance or directionality because I was nowhere, doing nothing. I was nothing. I was gone.
On June 1, 2001, I came to in a cross-legged seated position on the living room floor. Sunlight was needling through the blinds, illuminating crisscrossed planes of yellow dust that blurred and waned and I squinted. I heard a bird chirp.
I was alive.”
Cover image: Portrait of a Young Woman in White, by Jacques-Louis David
Review © Heather Munro.