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REVIEW: My Year of Rest and Relaxation By Ottessa Moshfegh

In a time when the shops are closed, a recession seems impending, and we are forced to stay inside, when could be more perfect to read Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation than now? This is exactly what her unnamed narrator wanted – the world to just stop for a while. Her protagonist is sick of 2001 New York life – working at the Ducat art gallery and navigating her co-dependent relationship with best friend. So, she sets on a quest to sleep for a year with the help of a cocktail of psycho-pharmaceuticals. But do the drugs provide a narco-escape from consumer culture, or provide a form of self-care that prepares her to go out and work all over again?

One thing that most people look for in a book is likeable characters, someone we can relate to and root for. However, Moshfegh does not rely on us liking her protagonist. She is actually the opposite of likeable, in her self-centred and bluntly rude ways. But the unlikeable nature to the character reflects the society that she hates so much - she has become so cynical, so sickened by the world that she finds little joy and feels no need to please others. If the character isn’t likeable, then what keeps us turning the page? The answer to that is: the writing. Moshfegh writes beautifully. She writes with depth, with unimaginable possibilities of interpretation and meaning. The book is pessimistic, comic, and tragic all at the same time.

The protagonist spends most of her time mocking and criticising others – young and rich Manhattaners, with their obsession with looks, possessions, and status. She mocks the pretentious university culture that focuses on talking about the male gaze and reading David Foster Wallace. She exposes the art world to be like Wall Street. Her pessimism is extremely comic and enjoyable to read. The most comic character is Dr Tuttle, who provides the narrator’s narcotics. Dr Tuttle seems wholly unqualified, she never listens, and is purely there for the money. Yet the narrator feels more love for this magus-like figure than anyone else in her life. This contrasts the co-dependent relationship she has with her best friend, Reva. This relationship is based on a fine line between love and hate. Their inability to empathise with one another is frustrating to read. But I read this as a testament to the relationships that modern society creates – to only look out for yourself, and always be in competition with others. Underneath the protagonists mocking, she is deeply sad and exhausted. Moshfegh creates a perfect balance between wit and profundity. She creates moments that make you close your page and digest the words for a minute.

One layer of the book which I was particularly drawn to was the role of art in society. She mocks the art sold in the gallery. She makes you wonder what art she actually believes is good. The book seems preoccupied with ideas of destruction and rebirth. Moshfegh quotes Picasso: ‘every act of creation is an act of destruction’. This can be used as a lens to read the entire novel – she destroys herself in order to rise as a new person. Set in the background of 9/11, this destruction and rebirth takes on a whole new meaning. To really start a revolution of the self, one must kill the old to start new. However, I’m not sure this takes place. The ending felt strange, far too peaceful. She had lost her cynical wit. Moshfegh explains that this is because she effectively ‘lobotomised herself’, but that provides a pessimistic view that goes against this ‘act of creation’ through destruction. The narrator has not created this powerful rebirth, she has sacrificed part of herself to deal with her life. She has not created a counterculture out of herself, she is preparing herself to return back into the world, reproduce the culture that she hated. This could also be taken further – does she not become the high-brow art that she spent so long criticising? Does her year of sleep not create a middle-class political statement to the unnatural lives that consumer culture creates?

Despite how convinced you are of this – whether she is simply rejoining the world that she hated, or she has killed part of herself to cope with it, the book is still marvellously written. I will definitely be reading more of Moshfegh's work.

A few of my favourite quotes:

  • ‘My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.’ Pg 51

  • ‘My trash mixed with the trash of others. The things I touched touched things other people had touched. I was contributing. I was connecting.’ Pg 115

  • ‘That was exactly what I wanted – my emotions passing like headlights that shine softly through a window, sweep past me, illuminate something vaguely familiar, then fade away.’ Pg 166

  • ‘That art world had turned out to be like the stock market, a reflection of political trends and the persuasions of capitalism, fuelled by greed and gossip and cocaine.’ Pg 183

  • ‘There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.’ Pg 289

Kate x

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