Joyce Carol Oates

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - by Ottessa Mosh­fegh

My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation

My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation by Ottessa Mosh­fegh. Pen­guin, 289 pp., $26.00

Like her first novel, Eileen (2015), nar­rated in a mem­o­rably dys­pep­tic first-per­son fe­male voice, Ottessa Mosh­fegh’s sec­ond novel reads like an un­cen­sored, un­apolo­getic, de­spair­ingly funny con­fes­sion. Its un­named nar­ra­tor is a twenty-four-year-old woman who looks “like a model” and de­fines her­self as a “somnophile”: “Oh, sleep. Noth­ing else could ever bring me such plea­sure, such free­dom, the power to feel and move and think and imag­ine, safe from the mis­eries of my wak­ing con­scious­ness.” In June 2000 she is liv­ing in an apart­ment on East 84th Street, on a trust fund es­tab­lished for her by her re­cently de­ceased par­ents; a Columbia Uni­ver­sity grad­u­ate, she has re­cently quit a cov­eted job at a Chelsea art gallery to re­treat from the world and in­dulge her­self in pro­longed pe­ri­ods of sleep:

[I] took tra­zodone and Am­bien and Nem­bu­tal un­til I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks. A few months went by . . . . My mus­cles with­ered. The sheets on my bed yel­lowed . . . .

Sleep­ing, wak­ing, it all col­lided into one gray, mo­not­o­nous plane ride through the clouds. I didn’t talk to my­self in my head. There wasn’t much to say. This was how I knew the sleep was hav­ing an ef­fect: I was grow­ing less and less at­tached to life. If I kept go­ing, I thought, I’d dis­ap­pear com­pletely, then reap­pear in some new form. This was my hope. This was the dream.

Self-med­i­cat­ing—“hiber­nat­ing”— is the nar­ra­tor’s stratagem for get­ting through her life be­numbed to feel­ing: “This was the beauty of sleep—re­al­ity de­tached it­self and ap­peared in my mind as ca­su­ally as a movie or a dream.”

Since the deaths of her par­ents, to whom she seems to have been very lit­tle at­tached, the nar­ra­tor of My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation has slipped into a state re­sem­bling an open-eyed coma. Mem­o­ries of her child­hood and her par­ents’ dully dis­as­trous mar­riage tor­ment her; she hopes to avoid mem­o­ries of their last un­happy days. (Though es­tranged in life, the fa­ther and mother die within a short span of time.) She avoids friends and ac­quain­tances, and barely man­ages to tol­er­ate her clos­est friend. She’d wanted a pre­scrip­tion from a doc­tor just for “down­ers to drown out my thoughts and judg­ments, since the con­stant bar­rage made it hard not to hate ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing,” but even­tu­ally the mas­sive in­ges­tion of drugs dulls more than ha­tred:

I felt noth­ing. I could think of feel­ings, emo­tions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me. I couldn’t even lo­cate where my emo­tions came from. My brain? It made no sense. Ir­ri­ta­tion was what I knew best—a heav­i­ness on my chest, a vi­bra­tion in my neck like my head was revving up be­fore it would rocket off my body. But that seemed di­rectly tied to my ner­vous sys­tem—a phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­sponse. Was sad­ness the same kind of thing? Was joy? Was long­ing? Was love?

In flat, dead­pan, un­em­bel­lished prose re­call­ing the ca­dences of Joan Did­ion and the clear-eyed can­dor of Mary Gait­skill, Mosh­fegh por­trays the vacu­ous in­te­rior life (she has vir­tu­ally no ex­te­rior life) of a nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity si­mul­ta­ne­ously self-loathing and self-dis­play­ing. So much crit­i­cal con­cen­tra­tion upon the self is a way of ador­ing one­self, for the sub­ject is never any­thing other than the self: “Since ado­les­cence, I’d vac­il­lated be­tween want­ing to look like the spoiled WASP that I was and the bum that I felt I was and should have been if I’d had any courage.” Ac­quir­ing a glam­orous job in a pre­ten­tious gallery af­ter grad­u­at­ing from col­lege is easy for her, given her looks, cloth­ing, and style: “I thought that if I did nor­mal things—held down a job, for ex­am­ple—I could starve off the part of me that hated ev­ery­thing.” If she’d been a man, she thinks, she might have “turned to a life of crime. But I looked like an off-duty model.” Be­ing “pretty” as­sures her a mod­icum of so­cial suc­cess, but she per­ceives it also as a trap that al­lows her to suc­ceed in a world that “val­ued looks above all else,” which she pro­fesses to de­spise.

As in a fairy tale given a dis­tinctly con­tem­po­rary Man­hat­tan gloss, the spoiled WASP pro­tag­o­nist de­cides to with­draw: “I was born into priv­i­lege,” she says at one point. “I am not go­ing to squan­der that.” Al­lowed the lux­ury of a with­drawal not avail­able to the lugubri­ous Eileen, who must live in a filthy hovel with an al­co­holic fa­ther she has come to hate and work at a job she loathes, the nar­ra­tor of My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation sys­tem­at­i­cally pre­pares for her hi­ber­na­tion by pre­pay­ing taxes and bills; her fi­nances are over­seen by her de­ceased fa­ther’s fi­nan­cial ad­viser, who sends her quar­terly state­ments she never reads. Her life is fo­cused on tak­ing drugs to in­duce sleep, sleep­ing for as long as she can, wak­ing re­luc­tantly for brief in­ter­vals, and re­turn­ing to sleep as soon as pos­si­ble. Her fond­est mem­o­ries of child­hood are of shar­ing a bed with her drug ad­dict, al­co­holic mother, who crushed Val­ium into her milk when she was a baby. It is sleep that feels “pro­duc­tive,” for she is con­vinced that “when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be re­newed, re­born . . . . My past life would be but a dream.” In­deed it’s some­thing of a chal­lenge for a novelist to make the achieve­ment of sleep into a goal wor­thy of hun­dreds of pages of prose, but Mosh­fegh suc­ceeds, to a de­gree:

The speed of time var­ied, fast or slow, de­pend­ing on the depth of my sleep . . . . My fa­vorite days were the ones that barely reg­is­tered. I’d catch my­self not breath­ing, slumped on the sofa, star­ing at an eddy of dust...and I’d re­mem­ber that I was alive for a sec­ond, then fade back out. Achiev­ing that state took heavy doses of Sero­quel or lithium com­bined with Xanax, and Am­bien or tra­zodone, and I didn’t want to overuse those pre­scrip­tions. There was a fine math­e­mat­ics for how to mete out se­da­tion.

Read­ers with a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in de­signer drugs will thrill to the eroti­cism of Mosh­fegh’s lita­nies:

My Am­bien, my Roz­erem, my Ati­van, my Xanax, my tra­zodone, my lithium. Sero­quel, Lunesta. Val­ium. I laughed. I teared up .... I counted out three lithium, two Ati­van, five Am­bien. That sounded like a nice mélange, a lux­u­ri­ous free fall into vel­vet black­ness. And a cou­ple of tra­zodone be­cause tra­zodone weighed down the Am­bien .... And maybe one more Ati­van.

The nar­ra­tor tells her­self that what she is do­ing is not sui­cide but rather the op­po­site of sui­cide: “My hi­ber­na­tion was self-preser­va­tional. I thought that it was go­ing to save my life.” The ma­jor side ef­fects from the drugs ap­pear to be merely com­i­cal: not car­diac or liver fail­ure as one might ex­pect, not brain dam­age, not even se­vere con­sti­pa­tion, but rather sleep­walk­ing, sleeptalk­ing, sleep-on­line-chat­ting, sleep­eat­ing, sleepshop­ping, sleepsmok­ing, sleep­tex­ting,

sleep-tele­phon­ing, and sleep-or­der­ing Chi­nese food. In pass­ing the nar­ra­tor al­ludes breezily to weight loss, im­bal­ance, and at­ro­phied mus­cles, but only in pass­ing, and the point is made that she never loses her looks. When she takes her blood pres­sure in a drug­store she notes in­dif­fer­ently that it is 80/50— “That seemed ap­pro­pri­ate.”

When, from time to time, de­spite in­gest­ing enough med­i­ca­tion to kill an ele­phant, the nar­ra­tor still can’t sleep, she com­pul­sively watches movies she has seen be­fore, which help to nar­co­tize her mind: “The movies I cy­cled through the most were The Fugi­tive, Fran­tic, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, and Bur­glar. I loved Har­ri­son Ford and Whoopi Gold­berg.” Even movies for which she feels con­tempt are cher­ished: “The stu­pider the movie, the less my mind had to work.”

My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation is laced with blackly comic in­ter­ludes. Though pas­sive to the point of vir­tual cata­to­nia, the nar­ra­tor can’t avoid in­ter­act­ing with a very few other peo­ple who in­clude a “lover” named Trevor of such as­tound­ing sex­ist oafish­ness he might have stepped out of one of the more fatu­ous episodes of Sex and the City: “I in­ter­preted Trevor’s sadism as a satire of ac­tual sadism.” Even fun­nier than Trevor is a ra­di­antly nutty ther­a­pist named Tut­tle who pre­scribes drugs ex­trav­a­gantly, promis­cu­ously, and un­ques­tion­ingly, prat­tling away in a unique psy­chob­a­b­ble:

Dr. Tut­tle had warned me of “ex­tended night­mares” and “clock­true mind trips,” “paral­y­sis of the imag­i­na­tion,” “per­ceived space- time anom­alies,” “dreams that feel like for­ays across the mul­ti­verse,” and “trips to ul­te­rior di­men­sions.”. . . And she had said that a small per­cent­age of peo­ple tak­ing the kind of med­i­ca­tions she pre­scribed for me re­ported hav­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions dur­ing their wak­ing hours. “They’re mostly pleas­ant vi­sions, ethe­real spir­its, ce­les­tial light pat­terns, an­gels, friendly ghosts. Sprites. Nymphs. Glit­ter.”

In flash­backs the nar­ra­tor re­calls her in­dif­fer­ent mother, who “got away with so much be­cause she was beau­ti­ful,” a car­i­ca­ture of a nar­cis­sist who ex­presses sur­prised dis­ap­proval when her hus­band, dy­ing of can­cer, re­quests to be brought home to die, and whose “only in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise . . .was do­ing crossword puz­zles.” (“She looked like Lee Miller if Lee Miller had been a bed­room drunk.”) More stereo­typ­i­cal are satiric por­traits of art gallery pro­pri­etors, pa­trons, and artists: “The art at Du­cat was sup­posed to be sub­ver­sive, ir­rev­er­ent, shock­ing, but was all just canned coun­ter­cul­ture crap, ‘punk, but with money.’” The gallery’s star artist is Ping Xi, whose early hugely suc­cess­ful work is “splat­ter paint­ings, à la Jack­son Pol­lock, made from his own ejac­u­late.” (Crit­ics rave: “Here is a spoiled brat tak­ing the piss out of the es­tab­lish­ment. Some are hail­ing him as the next Mar­cel Duchamp. But is he worth the stink?” When a home­less per­son takes up res­i­dence in the gallery, pa­trons as­sume that she is part of the ex­hibit. As the year of rest and re­lax­ation pro­gresses, slowly and halt­ingly, it be­gins to seem likely that the somnophile is in fact deeply ag­grieved, mired in the kind of patho­log­i­cal grief to which Freud gave the ro­man­tic la­bel “melan­cho­lia,” to dis­tin­guish it from the less ex­treme, more com­monly ex­pe­ri­enced “mourn­ing.” Her drug-tak­ing is a means of es­cap­ing from “the tragedy of my past”; she can­not ex­press mourn­ing, it seems, per­haps be­cause she had not loved her par­ents, and so she is trapped in melan­cho­lia—a paral­y­sis of the spirit. Yet My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation is most con­vinc­ing as an ur­bane dark com­edy, sharp-eyed satire leav­ened by pas­sages of mor­bid so­bri­ety, as in a per­verse fu­sion of Sex and the City and Re­quiem for a Dream.

Both Mosh­fegh’s nov­els, like the ma­jor­ity of the deftly nar­rated, dead­pan short sto­ries col­lected in Home­sick for An­other World (2017), show­case char­ac­ters who are de­fi­antly un­lik­able— un­gen­er­ous, un­friendly, crit­i­cal of oth­ers, lack­ing in­tel­lec­tual or cul­tural in­ter­ests. They are “out­spo­ken”—if fe­male, the very op­po­site of “fem­i­nine.” Crip­plingly self-con­scious, em­bit­tered and spite­ful, the an­ti­heroine of Eileen ac­knowl­edges that she “hated al­most ev­ery­thing. I was very un­happy and an­gry all the time.”

Like the nar­ra­tor of My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation, Eileen shares a bed with her mother even as her mother is dy­ing, and wakes in the morn­ing be­side her corpse: “She died when I was just nine­teen, thin as a rail by then, some­thing my mother had praised me for.” To im­mu­nize her­self from the “mis­ery and shame” that sur­round her, she has learned to face the world with a “death mask” ap­pro­pri­ated from re­pro­duc­tions of ac­tual death masks. Eileen’s an­gry sto­icism masks her self-pity, though the reader is likely to sense that the en­ergy gal­va­niz­ing the novel has been, in­deed, an in­fi­nite pity for the mis­fit self aban­doned by an un­feel­ing mother.

As the somnophile had pre­dicted, My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation con­cludes on a hope­ful note. Af­ter nearly a year she be­gins to free her­self from her en­chant­ment with sleep. She takes the last of her pills; she ven­tures out­side. She be­gins to re­dis­cover the world. She shakes off her past iden­tity: “I had no dreams. I was like a new­born an­i­mal. I rose with the sun.” And lest we should miss the point: “That was it. I was free.” More en­gag­ing than Eileen, more var­ied in tone, and much fun­nier, My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation is a re­cy­cling of the ma­te­ri­als of Eileen that tracks a dis­agree­able, self-ab­sorbed young woman in her twen­ties through a cathar­tic ex­pe­ri­ence that leaves her os­ten­si­bly al­tered and pre­pared for a new, freer life. Where Eileen ends abruptly and not very con­vinc­ingly, af­ter an awk­ward melo­dra­matic in­ter­lude, My Year of Rest and Re­lax­ation ends with the spec­ta­cle of the Septem­ber 11, 2001, ter­ror­ist at­tack on the World Trade Cen­ter, for which the au­thor has sub­tly pre­pared us. In fact, it seems likely that the nar­ra­tor’s col­lege room­mate— about whom she has felt a pre­vail­ing ex­as­per­ated bore­dom—has died in the at­tack. Un­am­bigu­ously now, the somnophile has been awak­ened. “My sleep had worked. I was soft and calm and felt things. This was good. This was my life now . . . . I could move on.”

Ottessa Mosh­fegh

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