Is life as art a wasted life? That’s what author Ottessa Moshfegh aims to find out. The cover of her new novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation could lead readers to think it’s an Edith Wharton kind of period piece about fainting ladies. Well, fasten your seat belts because it couldn’t be more different. I really enjoyed Moshfegh’s earlier novel Eileen and knew she had a quirky style but I was unprepared for what she conjured up this time.
The narrator of the story is a desensitized twenty-something woman whose parents have both passed away and she is left to contemplate life alone and unloved in New York City in 2001. Her late father was a college professor who got one of his beautiful young students (her mother) pregnant and married her. It was a loveless union and neither parent loved their sole offspring. After she graduates college she goes to work at an art gallery in New York City. When she’s found asleep on the job she’s fired. Many of us have experienced job loss and used the opportunity to reevaluate our lives but not with the vigor and level of masochism displayed here. She sets off on a journey of introspection and decides to go into hibernation for the purpose of restoring and rediscovering herself.
She has only one friend, Reva, whom she really doesn’t like, and an uncaring and distant ex-boyfriend she insists on keeping in touch with. Like me, the protagonist is a huge fan of sleeping. There’s nothing she would rather be doing. Unlike me, who does it purely for pleasure and to recharge my batteries, she uses sleep to escape herself and her loveless life.
Her solution to life’s problems is to check out for a year, to “start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation”. She makes meticulous plans for a year-long hibernation in her apartment facilitated by massive quantities of pharmaceuticals. She sources an unethical and somewhat unorthodox psychiatrist in the Yellow Pages by the name of Dr. Tuttle who has a chemical solution for every condition. The more conditions, the more “help” is prescribed. Using her inheritance money to bankroll the project, she experiments with various pharmaceutical cocktails until she lands on the ideal one to knock her out for days at a time. This is where life becomes art. She contracts a fraudulent performance artist to document her “trip”.
The story is bizzarre and gripping at the same time. On no level can I connect with a young woman who opts for enormous quantities of questionable, powerful drugs to ease her pain. But I couldn’t put the book down. Will she self-destruct? Will she survive? Will she thrive at the end of it all? The day-to-day summary of her year-long mundane existence should be boring but it’s not. Ottessa Moshfegh has an incredible imagination and a sharp eye for description. I can’t imagine how she comes up with this material. I only hope she researched and didn’t personally experience the vast inventory of pharmaceuticals she describes in great detail in the book. My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a very unusual story, a brave experiment and I applaud the author for her courage. It was strange, outside my comfort zone and fascinating. It was also a New York Times best seller. I won’t even rate it. I’ll leave that for you to decide. Let me know what you think.