Reviewed by Alice Farrant
There are books you enjoy and then there are the books that consume you. Authors whose work brands you, generating literary musing that lasts well beyond the final pages of their novels. Donna Tartt, Ford Madox Ford, Richard Yates, Sarah Moss, Elena Ferrante… Ottessa Moshfegh has joined the ranks of literature that affects or influences the way I think as much as it reflects the world.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is set over a year, the end of 1999 meeting the beginning of a new century. A literal period of time as well as a motif for change. Our unnamed narrator appears to have it all, affluent, slim, and beautiful. Dead parents, distant when alive and unknowable dead, provide a fortune that allows her the privilege of slipping into a year of dissonance between her and the life she is expected to live.
This was the beauty of sleep – reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream. It was easy to ignore things that didn’t concern me.
As the year progresses she slips into a depressive state, unable to uphold the pretence that has been her existence so far; she doesn’t fit into the mould society has set for her and she no longer wants to keep trying. Existing on a multitude of medications to separate her from her reality rather than confront it, she begins a year of blackouts, mental-healing and selfishness.
Encumbered by the malaise of modern life and the onset of the millennium she decides (or has no choice but to?) sleep through the next year of her life. Taking a cocktail of pills prescribed by her eccentric psychiatrist she downs a bevy of pills to disassociate from the world. She appears to have the ideal life, especially envied by her best friend Reva with whom she has a passive-aggressive and toxic friendship. She feeds off Reva’s insecurities and enjoys the power she holds in their friendship. Reva, conversely, uses her as a social tool, craving to become her while also hating her and all the insecurities she brings out in her.
Our narrator is never named, not always easily done in a novel, though I found I never cared. She was too familiar to need a name, well within my understanding of who she could be if I had met her at the time or even now (the Sex and the City, New York archetype of a ’90s woman). She represents more than herself, she represents a feeling of what it is to be in her situation, that of the helpless and the privileged. Trapped by society but complicit within it.
Moshfegh has a talent for creating characters and worlds indistinguishable from reality. Her writing is humorous beneath its dark setting. There is never an inclination that the narrator is without fault of selfishness; her situation and mental health deterioration are marred by the knowledge that this is someone of immense privilege, able to take a year away from her life without consequence, but also highlighting how selfish and uncontrollable depression can be. No one chooses to be sad, and the sad without meaning to can be selfish.
I was faced with a similar conundrum as when I read Moshfegh’s novel Eileen: I both sympathised with the narrator and her need to escape the world, and was also horrified by her actions. Reva presents the same issue. She is a sponge, she enjoys the narrator’s decline as she has always been jealous of her, wanting her to want her but also hating how much she wants to be her. Reva cements herself in the real world, uses it to align her, as the one person who really knows her goes into a serious decline and her mother dies of cancer. The narrator rarely supports or sympathises with Reva; the depression renders her incapable. Our narrator is the type of girl other girls want to see fail. Where life is so easy their fall from grace is even sweeter. The Kendall Jenner or Kim Kardashian of the late ’90s.
As a friend, Reva was indeed corny and affectionate and needy, but she was also very secretive and occasionally very patronizing. […] “I’m just worried about you. Because I care. Because I love you.
But Reva doesn’t really care, while there is nothing to feed off of and to envy, there is a familiarity to the narrator, she is someone Reva craves attention from (there may be no one else). Or at least that’s how the narrator sees her. She keeps Reva at a distance, enjoying the adulation and disliking that Reva may have aspects to her that could be positive and without relation to her. The narrator doesn’t respect Reva; for her Reva is more an accessory than a friend so it’s easy to dislike her despite what Reva goes through over the course of the year.
Ever since we’d formed a friendship, if I told her that something good happened, she’d whine “No fair” often enough that it became a kind of catchphrase that she would toss off casually, her voice flat.
Their friendship is symbiotic, toxic, Reva wants to emulate the narrator to the point of outdoing her, and ultimately she pays the literary price for her ambition. As soon as she is no longer in need of their symbiotic relationship, when her mother has died, the narrator recovers and lets go of the material life she leads before. Without her tethers to her previous life, there is a sense that the narrator could have the potential to be a better friend, but that’s not how their friendship works, and with the change comes difference.
The worst was that those guys tried to pass off their insecurities as “sensitivity” and it worked.
Moshfegh so perfectly captures the feel of the time when the novel is set. This is the time before Facebook, YouTube and Social Media, before everyone lived on the internet and we all had to survive with dial-up. It’s the end of the Clinton era, we’re about to face Bush, and 9/11. We felt anxious about the new century and change, watched TV and read books. Life wasn’t instant or as fast-paced and demanding as it is now, but even here our narrator is overwhelmed by the pressure of modern life. The novel climaxes as the narrator falls fully into a 24/7 ‘slumber’ through her final months of the year. Continually popping the pill that separates her mind from her reality as her art-star friend turns her into the ultimate art installation.
To quote Adam Sternbergh, “The bookends of decades rarely conform to calendars, and the nineties didn’t truly end until September 11, 2001. We’d been wondering what was coming, and then we found out. We saw clearly what it was that we didn’t yet know and couldn’t possibly anticipate.” I think this encapsulates the novel. The millennium isn’t the point, it’s a point of change, but it’s not the change in society is the change of the narrator. It is poignant in terms of her story, but not the deepest cultural change that would be marked in 2001.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a dark, insightful and almost playful look at the breakdown of the privileged. I could say more on the humour woven through the novel, but humour has never much been my forte, I will leave you to discover it yourself. Because you will read this novel, there is no reason not to, it’s a sensation.
Moshfegh, Ottessa My Year of Rest and Relaxation, (Jonathan Cape: London, 2018). 978-1787330412, 304pp., paperback.
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