Why does sinking into a nice long slumber sound so appealing? Is a dream world where we’d all rather be?
This is a question faced by Otessa Moshfegh’s narrator in the new critically-acclaimed novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
Like many of us, I am a person who wants to escape, who wants to distract myself from the sometimes painful realities of life. There has been many a time when I’ve thought being numb would be better than feeling anything at all.
I remember a moment distinctly three years ago, when my life was turning to shit (I can’t think of a better word), and I felt nostalgic for my previous ability to be distracted. I wanted to numb out, forget, be absorbed by any number of thoughts that might take me away from reality. I was facing divorce, the increasing pressure to find a full-time job to support myself and my kids, and the inevitability of losing my house. But because I’d spent so much time meditating and studying yoga philosophy, I was unable to completely check out from my emotions. I was feeling my feelings, aware of what was going on in my mind, aware of my patterns of thought. And that awareness meant I had to force myself to accept what was before me, as well as embrace the change.
This is why, I think, Otessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation is so alluring. The concept is a twenty-something woman whose inheritance from her dead parents allows her to do nothing for an entire year but watch bad movies, sip cheap coffee, and sleep. Mostly, she sleeps. She finds a psychiatrist who will prescribe her enough drugs to live in a pharmaceutical haze of oblivion day after day, and that’s what she does. She doesn’t like anybody, has only one friend (who she also doesn’t like), and no one is looking for her. She can sink into nothingness, be a nobody, like the speaker in Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (“How dreary – to be – Somebody! / How public – like a Frog!”). She can let go of ambition and the desire to achieve, and instead wallow in stasis, in the simple, home-bound routines of life.
Twenty pages in, I wondered why I was reading this book, where it could possibly go. One hundred pages in, I still couldn’t understand what made me continue to pick it up, but I did. I wanted to see what would happen, when the narrator would hit a tipping point. I knew a tipping point had to come. And little by little, Moshfegh dropped crumbs about the narrator’s life, helping the reader to understand her behavior more and more–her upbringing, with a depressed mother who didn’t pay enough attention to her. Her strained relationship with her father. These crumbs kept me going, right up to the didactic, thoughtful, purposeful ending, which made me come away thinking Otessa Moshfegh is really, really smart.
Does the narrator change, become more likable? Not really. A little. But does the book hit a nerve about where we are, where we’ve come, what it means to be human in the 21st century? Absolutely.
I highly recommend the novel as a story that’s deceptively simple, with plenty to talk about—our contemporary love affair with pharmaceuticals, the effect that 9/11 has had on our psyche, an exploration of friendship and relationships, and what it means to be awake in life vs. dazed and dreaming.