Books

The Big Sleep

The narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s swaggering novel hopes to sleep her life away.

A woman sleeps inside a prescription pill.
Doris Liou

The narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel, 2015’s Eileen, had zero fucks to give. Eileen, a young secretary at a juvenile prison in early 1960s Massachusetts, holds nearly everyone in contempt, a sentiment occasionally modified by her prurient interest in their sex lives. The unnamed narrator of Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, has negative fucks to give. You’d have to loan her a few fucks to zero out her account. In this swaggeringly mordant novel, set in New York during the 18 months leading up to the 9/11 attacks, the narrator just wants to be unconscious as often as possible, preferably under the influence of enough heavy-duty pharmaceuticals to “arrest my imagination and put me into a deep, boring, inert sleep.” Recently orphaned, she has precisely two personal relationships: with Reva, her alleged best friend, and with Trevor, an older guy in finance—theirs is a degrading on-and-off affair that persists only because Trevor will “periodically deplete his self-esteem in relationships with older women, i.e., women his own age, then return to me to reboot. I was always available.”

The bravado in Moshfegh’s comprehensive darkness makes her novels both very funny and weirdly exhilarating, despite her willingness to travel so far down the road of misanthropy that she approaches nihilism. Forget likable, these young women refuse even to be acceptable, and this ushers them into a certain kind of freedom. They are to conventional femininity what pirates were to 19th-century mercantilism, and this makes them a blast to read about. In the throes of her “hibernation,” the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation (for succinctness’ sake, let’s just call her the sleeper) “stopped tweezing, stopped bleaching, stopped waxing, stopped brushing my hair. No moisturizing or exfoliating. No shaving.” She’s blonde, thin, and pretty, traits that don’t abandon her however much she neglects cultivating them. Still, the handsome Egyptians who run the corner bodega, having watched her stumble through the door with toothpaste crust on her face one too many times, stopped flirting with her long ago. Fired from her job at a Chelsea art gallery for napping in the storeroom, the sleeper has inherited enough cash to do absolutely nothing for a year or two, and she plans to seize the opportunity.

The sleeper’s obsession with shut-eye begins with a simple aversion, a desire to “drown out my thoughts and judgments, since their constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.” One way to read My Year of Rest and Relaxation is as an indictment of the vacuity of turn-of-the-20th-century urban life. Reva, whose personality is a swamp of neediness and envy papered over with women’s-magazine claptrap and self-help nostrums, serves as an emissary from that world, her conversation an endless loop of complaints about her married lover, gossip about celebrities’ plastic surgery, and reproaches showered on the sleeper, both for her effortless beauty and her failure to take advantage of it. Reva makes a study of Sex and the City; the sleeper prefers ’80s and ’90s movies—Frantic, Soapdish, Ghost. Her hero is Whoopi Goldberg, a passion the sleeper seemingly shares with Moshfegh herself. What she loves about Whoopi, the sleeper explains, is her acceptance of the fundamental ridiculousness of life. “Whenever she appeared on-screen, I sensed she was laughing at the whole production. … Wherever she went, everything around her became a parody of itself, gauche and ridiculous. That was a comfort to see. Thank God for Whoopi. Nothing was sacred. Whoopi was proof.”

Ottessa Moshfegh.
Ottessa Moshfegh.
Krystal Griffiths

Nevertheless, the sleeper is no stranger to Reva’s brand of folly. After graduating from Columbia, she did “what young women in New York like me were supposed to do, at first: 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.” As part of her gallery job, she tracked the careers of horrid art-world scene-makers—fictional, but oh so typical of the breed—listed and described by Moshfegh in a long passage of virtuosic savagery. (“Stacey Bloom had started a magazine called Kun(s)t about ‘women in the arts,’ mostly profiles of rich art-party girls who were starting their own fashion lines or opening galleries or nightclubs or starring in indie movies. Her father was the president of Citibank.”) And while this milieu revolts her, she hasn’t entirely cut herself off from it. She starts taking a (made-up) drug, Infermiterol, that triggers a “subliminal rebellion”: During blackouts that occur under its influence, she goes clubbing, schedules waxing and spa sessions, orders lingerie from Victoria’s Secret, and sexts with strangers in AOL chat rooms, then wakes up the next day with no memory of her adventures.

A psychiatric quack named Dr. Tuttle supplies the sleeper with Infermiterol and a rich palette of other drugs, not all of which are even meant to treat insomnia, the complaint the patient presents with. Dr. Tuttle, a Dickensian creation who best demonstrates the sheer satirical zest of the novel, ushers her patient into one session wearing oversized amber sunglasses and a tattered nightgown. She medicates as a crackpot creative art, prescribing drugs for their side effects and recommending that the sleeper “fill the lithium and Haldol prescriptions first. It’s good to get your case going with a bang. That way later on, if we need to try out some wackier stuff, your insurance company won’t be surprised.” By the end of the novel, Dr. Tuttle has moved on to a New Age therapy that involves using “copper dowels to locate lugubriations in the subtle body field. It’s an ancient form of healing—locating and then surgically removing cancerous energies.” But something she says before that could be the motto of My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Moshfegh’s prevailing view of humanity: “Look deeper and deeper and eventually you’ll find nothing. We’re mostly empty space. We’re mostly nothing.”

As in Eileen, Moshfegh excels here at setting up an immediately intriguing character and situation, then amplifying the freakishness to the point that some rupture feels inevitable. Her confidence never flags; hers are the novels of a writer invigoratingly immune to uncertainty and self-doubt. Still, she hasn’t always succeeded in bringing her story home. The middles of her novels seem to go on too long, as if she can’t quite bring herself to knock down the tower of blocks she’s built. Some novelists fail at this essential move due to an apparent lack of nerve, but in Moshfegh’s case, I suspect it’s because she’s so enamored with her premises and the (admittedly amusing) string of caustic observations and bad behavior they produce that she doesn’t want to let go. Eileen culminated in a rushed and rather ridiculous act of violence, but with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, she has found a more satisfying way to resolve the plot. The sleeper joins forces with one of her former employer’s most meretricious clients, an artist whose previous work consisted of taxidermy purebred dogs rigged with red-laser-shooting eyes. He agrees to supervise the sleeper’s six-month, medically induced “hibernation” in exchange for the right to pose and photograph her unconscious body. She believes that with this much sleep (waking every three days to eat), she can finally “become a whole new person.” And bizarrely enough, it begins to work, clearing out the deadwood of her old life in preparation for the new. “I could feel the certainty of a reality leeching out of me like calcium from a bone. I was starving my mind into obliqueness. I felt less and less.”

Cover of Ottessa Moshfegh's novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
Penguin Press

But just why is she so alienated? Reviewers have focused on the sleeper’s privilege and attempted to interpret the novel as a gloss on contemporary lifestyle fixations like “self-care” and political apathy. Yet My Year of Rest and Relaxation is patently a novel about grief. The sleeper loses both her parents—her scientist father to cancer and her alcoholic mother to suicide—before graduating from college. “None of us had much warmth in our hearts,” she observes of her family home. She recalls her father as a detached man she “barely knew” and her disdainful mother as the sort of woman she might herself become, “a beautiful fish in a man-made pool, circling and circling, surviving the tedium only because my memory can contain only what is imprinted on the last few minutes of my life.”

Yet the sleeper mourns them, however much she tries to avoid acknowledging this fact. Nature, which has blessed her in most ways, has not exempted her from the absurdity of grieving for people she couldn’t help loving despite her belief that they didn’t love her back. When the estate lawyer calls to tell her that he thinks she should sell her late parents’ vacant house, she wonders “how many of my parents’ hairs and eyelashes and skin cells and fingernail clippings had survived between the floorboards.” She claims to feel no attachment to the building, but what person who felt nothing would ever entertain such a thought?

The painful and humiliating predicament of unrequited love redounds throughout the novel in the sleeper’s attachment to the indifferent Trevor and in her unkindness to poor Reva, who professes to love the sleeper no matter how badly her friend treats her. No wonder the sleeper would prefer to, and often pretends to, feel nothing at all. A friend once told me in the immediate aftermath of personal heartache, “I know that I’ll feel better eventually, but I just wish I could skip over this part.” Many people have fantasized about evacuating their lives during especially hard periods, but Moshfegh’s heroine is bold enough to actually try to pull it off. She doesn’t yet have Whoopi’s graceful amusement at the farce of the human condition, but she’s working on it. By the novel’s end, she’s attained some kind of higher state, and you can see why Moshfegh was in no great hurry to get her there. Ultimately, the sleeper does and should become a better person—it’s just that the worse one was a lot more fun.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshgefh. Penguin Press.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.