Ottessa Moshfegh has a particular talent for writing about vile characters in an engaging way. Her novel “Eileen” portrayed an excruciatingly self-conscious protagonist recalling a dark mystery from many year ago. But where the protagonist of that novel was repulsed and embarrassed by her own body, the unnamed narrator of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” takes easy pride in her beauty and size two figure. But she doesn’t see this as an advantage as she slyly observes “Being pretty only kept me trapped in a world that valued looks above all else.” She’s an art history graduate that comes from a privileged background who sets herself the goal of sleeping as much as possible for a year. Her reasons for this goal are elusive at first and appear to be nothing more than the whim of a jaded spoiled young woman, but gradually it takes on more poignancy as she describes her difficult relationship with her mother and the disappointingly shallow experience of working in an art gallery. This takes place in New York City over the years 2000-2001 and she seems to be asking during this ominous period in which George Bush Jr takes office whether it’s more sensible to sleep through life than live it. Reading this novel is perversely pleasurable with its weary view of the world and the narrator’s overwhelming devotion to her hero Whoopi Goldberg who embodies for her the idea that “Nothing was sacred.”
The narrator has an all-consuming scepticism about human emotions and can’t engage in meaningful exchanges. She reflects “I felt nothing. I could think of feelings, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me.” Her only friend is an old college buddy named Reva who is perpetually insecure, suffers from an eating disorder and aspires to obtain the narrator’s privilege and waist line. But the narrator barely tolerates her and breezily ignores Reva when she confesses that her mother is suffering from cancer or that she has an unwanted pregnancy. Equally any emotion Reva displays towards the narrator is awkwardly accepted like when Reva hugs her at one point and the narrator observes how “I felt like a praying mantis in her arms.” The narrator regularly sees a quack psychiatrist named Dr Tuttle (when she doesn’t sleep through their scheduled appointment) but only in order to obtain worryingly strong doses of sleep medication to aide her in sinking into an unconscious oblivion. Hilariously her doctor can’t even recall that the narrator’s parents are both dead even after she’s told this multiple times and makes extensive notes.
It’s rational to assume at first that the narrator’s desire for sleep is connected to the loss of her parents, especially her emotionally absent mother who she only ever felt close to when they were unconscious in the same bed. But this easy interpretation of the narrator’s goal is refuted when she reflects about her mother’s death: “the particular sadness of a young woman who has lost her mother – complex and angry and soft, yet oddly hopeful. I recognized it. But I didn’t feel it inside of me. The sadness was just floating around in the air. It became denser in the graininess of shadows.” Instead of building relationships or looking for a sense of self-worth when she’s conscious she only seeks to lose herself in an endless stream of rewatched VHS tapes of movies from the 80s and 90s. It gives her a temporary sense of detachment from reality that can only be perfectly realised in “Good strong American sleep.”
While it can be enjoyable to indulge in the narrator’s frank and nihilistic view of the world, the novel took on more poignancy for me as I pondered why Moshfegh set it at this particular point in American history. It’s a period leading up to an event which is ominously foreshadowed throughout the novel when it’s casually mentioned the narrator’s ex-boyfriend works in the Twin Towers. It ultimately began to feel like the author wished she could wake up from the string of tragic events and toxic culture that has plagued the country in the 21st century thus far and dismiss it all as a nightmare. Looking at it this way, it begins to make sense that the narrator considers “I would risk death if it meant I could sleep all day and become a whole new person.” The great tragedy of this novel is that the narrator can’t ever escape herself or the history she’s trapped in.