One woman’s de­sire for nar­cotic hi­ber­na­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.