One woman’s desire for narcotic hibernation
It’s 2000 and the unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, is 24 and embarking on an adventure, “finally doing something that really mattered”. Meticulous, declivitous and inspired by the avant-garde art she has overseen as a Columbia University graduate working in a Manhattan gallery that specialises in “canned counter-culture crap”, she prepares to be “renewed, reborn”.
The recent deaths of her unloving parents have left her with an inheritance, meaning she is free to do anything; to become “a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories”.
She occasionally sees her nauseating former lover, Trevor, and more than occasionally phones him. She is visited by her friend, Reva, who is intermittently hopeful and sometimes kind. “The night is young,” Reva says, dispensing platitudes as a kind of homeopathic cure for fatigue: “Life is short … die young and leave a beautiful corpse.”
The narrator describes herself as “tall and thin and blond and pretty and young”, each “and” a tick on a curiously unsatisfying list. Even at her worst, she insists, “I knew I still looked good”, like an “off-duty model”. Yet she feels caught in a vortex between “the spoiled WASP that I was and the bum that I felt I was”, trapped by “being pretty” in a world “that valued looks above everything else”. If there’s more to life than being looked at, she needs a vision. What she wants to do is to sleep. Calling herself a somnophile, she twists dutiful consumerism to the service of annihilation. The project is, she insists, “the opposite of suicide”. This is about self-preservation: it’s going to save her life. “Oh, sleep!”, she waxes in a Keatsian kind of swoon as it encloses her: “Nothing else could bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and think and move and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”
She is aided in her metamorphosis by her pharmaceutically inspired psychiatrist. When her patient tells her she feels like hell, Dr Tuttle flourishes her prescription pad with a jaunty “Hell? I can give you something for that”. Dr Tuttle calls one of her cats “my eldest” and spouts variously spurious, dubious and evidently fictive research such as that “daily meditation has been shown to cure insomnia in rats”.
To bogus psychologising she adds bogus spiritual guidance, gesturing vaguely in the direction of a “church or synagogue” for inner peace. For better sleep, eat a can of chickpeas. Eschewing the term “dream journal”, she suggests a “night vision log”.
Marvellously informed about advances in medication, she is comically incapable of retaining the fact that the narrator’s parents have died. When the narrator feeds her a confected version of her mother’s death — “she mixed alcohol with sedatives” — Dr Tuttle tuts: “People like your mother give psychotropic medication a bad reputation.” “Valium helped. Ativan helped. Chewable melatonin and Benadryl and NyQuil and Lunesta and Temazepan helped.” Moshfegh’s sentences are rhythmic delights, jazzlike in their riffs and jagged pulse, substituting drug names into the template of lyric poetry.
These taxonomies are as precise and extensive as those in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Pyscho (1991), with Patrick Bateman’s meticulousness and murderousness entwined as an allegory of narcissistic acquisitiveness of which, in some ways, this is a latter-generation echo or shadow. There, Bateman details his grooming routine as a prelude to the details of torture: Lis- terine, Interplak, Vivagen, Clinique, Ralph Lauren, Pour Hommes.
And here, 20 years later, where letting go and pain knot and writhe, pour femmes? Trippy sensuality: a “nice melange, a luxurious freefall into velvet blackness” eases Moshfegh’s narrator into the arms of invented medications: Prognosticrone, Silencior, Maxiphenphen.
Dr Tuttle, a bit of a prognosticrone herself, notes her patient’s “flat affect”. The pivot of much of the novel’s satire is just as studiously dour. Deadpanning her way through despair, the narrator dispenses with niceties, but the dynamic is more deliciously orchestrated than this, more contrapuntal. For every promise of consumable happiness, the narrator’s flat riposte; for every advertised solution or way out, her arch and choking scorn.
And although this is a novel about pain, it zings along, energised by the narrative voice. This is a long way from the voice of the eponymous protagonist of her Man Booker Prize shortlisted debut Eileen. There, Eileen reflects from old age on her 24-year-old self. She is a long way from the narrator’s flat, kneejerk narcissism in the new novel.
Yet, in the creation of the grain of each voice, Moshfegh’s acute attentiveness and originality are clear. Each character treads a cusp and each observes the reach of human optimism, trying to smother her own inextinguishable hopes as she does so. Eileen despises men who talk about having had happy childhoods. This narrator feels “people look stupid when they were ‘ having a good time’ ”. Yet when flowers that arrive