Our unnamed female protagonist is living in New York City in June of 2000. She’s twenty-six, thin, blonde, privileged and rich with lots of money thanks to her dead parents’ insurance, and works as an assistant at an exclusive art gallery that caters to the wealthy and needlessly pretentious. But she’s also vain, hates her only friend Reva with a passion, her only love interest doesn’t care for her, and she’s empty on the inside. So she devises a cure-all. Book in some sessions with a quack doctor, Dr. Tuttle, who will prescribe her more and more sleep medication, and she will sleep away all the uncomfortable feelings. Soon, Ambien and Xanax and Nembutal and Zyprexa and Solfoton and Trazodone and Ativan and Rozeren become her closest companions. She quits her job to sleep more. Soon she’s sleeping most of the day. But the emptiness lingers. One day, Dr. Tuttle prescribes an experimental drug: Infermiterol. Thanks to Infermiterol, she can sleep for the remaining six months of her one year experiment. Blondie’s life will never be the same again.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is a 2018 literary fiction novel that I came across online because of its memorable cover and so, so many rave reviews. Also, because my copy of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero has an introduction by Moshfegh, and that was enough to cement my desire to read this book. And who doesn’t like rest and relaxation? Let alone a whole year of it? Of course, since I knew it was literary, the title might mean nothing in the scheme of things; one of my favourite novels, Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, does not have a hedgehog protagonist. But I was intrigued. The title is not a lie. It’s about a woman, unnamed just because, who sleeps for a year. I went into this book knowing nothing beyond the title, but that was fine. How could Moshfegh keep me interested enough to keep up this book for nearly 300 pages?
One thing that My Year of Rest and Relaxation has got going for it is the writing style. Moshfegh’s writing is beautiful and full of imagery, and it left me feeling as bleak and empty as Blondie. I would read fifty to a hundred pages a day over the roughly five days I took to read this, and only stopped because there’s only so much you can handle reading from the point of view of a character who is cold and empty, hates the only person who cares about her, and is constantly talking about the drugs she takes to stay asleep the way Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho talks about designer brands and fancy foods. While Blondie is just as unlikeable as Bateman, it’s endearing, and you want to keep reading about her life. Her relationship with friend Reva is one-sided, with Reva being the one who puts in all the effort while Blondie just pretends to be her bestie. You’re on Reva’s side, feeling for a woman oblivious she’s in a toxic friendship and toxic lifestyle, but you can kinda understand Blondie, in the devil-on-the-shoulder sort of way.
In the way of characters, there’s not many. Aside from Reva, there’s Dr. Tuttle, the overblown caricature of a dodgy medical professional. Tuttle prattles pseudoscience, even becoming a practicing shaman, she’s constantly filing lawsuits and wearing neck braces, she offers Blondie tips to purchase truckloads of sleeping pills without alerting authorities. It’s so OTT that it doesn’t even make you critique medical science or bad psychiatry or whatever it is Moshfegh is trying to tell us; instead, she’s a glimmer of comedy in an otherwise bleak story about an emotionally repressed, husk of a Blondie. Tuttle makes no attempt to help Blondie improve: Tuttle believes Blondie’s lies that she’s suffering insomnia, she repetitively asks Blondie how her parents died, in which Blondie gives increasingly preposterous reasons. Tuttle exists purely to prescribe Blondie medicine, which she does obligingly, alongside prattling to Blondie about the pseudoscience behind drugs and psychiatry and even Big Oil. There’s Natasha, Blondie’s boss before she gets herself fired for excessive sleeping. There’s Blondie’s distant, emotionally repressed parents; her mother, who died in a similar way to how Blondie is now behaving (on drugs and constantly sleeping), and her professor father, who died of cancer. In the way of male characters, there is not a single positively portrayed male character. Her on-off “boyfriend” (if you’d call him that; casual fuck buddy is probably the best way to describe their relationship) Trevor is a much-older yuppie, who only cares about having his sexual desires met, and does not want intimacy or a proper relationship with Blondie. Reva’s having an affair with her boss, Ken, who’s portrayed as an absolute dickhead, if Reva’s words are to be trusted…and she’s more reliable than Blondie. Blondie’s father is just a stranger she used to walk past in her house, and colleagues and students at his university had a fonder relationship. There’s even a colleague of Blondie’s Dad who basically sexually assaults Blondie while her mother is on a toilet break. Wonderful.
There are two disappointments I had with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. First: the cover is a painting of a brunette. The author is brunette. Blondie is…well, blonde. If you think about this novel in a Lit 101 sense, Moshfegh is probably referring to Reva, who at the end of the novel, is revealed to be the painting that stirs Art History college graduate Blondie back to life. It could just as easily refer to Blondie being made into artwork by Ducat, her former art gallery in Chelsea, head artist Ping Xi, with the brown hair referring to Blondie’s latent love of Reva. Or maybe this is just me sounding like one of the pretentious and privileged artists that deck the walls of Ducat and the Met, like in Blondie’s needless ramble near the end of the book.
The second problem I had was with Chapter Eight, the last chapter. Apparently, Moshfegh received a lot of criticism for this inclusion in the novel. I knew a 9/11 reference was inevitable, considering our story starts in June of 2000. I expected it. I was hoping for Moshfegh’s referencing of 9/11 to be interesting, well-thought out and not too tasteless. I remember the ending of the movie Remember Me, with Robert Pattinson. I watched it back in the day because I was a teenager and I was Team Edward. The ending left me an emotional wreck. In the case of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, I feel we could have had the same impact with Chapter Eight removed. The last line of Chapter Seven was perfect as is. We already know Blondie is unlikeable. We know she doesn’t truly care about her friend, even though she claims to love her; because what would a girl-woman who’s never received or been the recipient of love or affection in her life understand what love is? She may have a new lease on life, allegedly, but we don’t need Chapter Eight to stabbingly reinforce the point. It just feels added in for shock factor, when the realisation at the end of Chapter Seven is enough.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation was a restless read. I was drawn in by Moshfegh’s writing, and will most likely pick something up of hers in the future. I felt as numb and emotionless and drained as the protagonist throughout my almost-week of reading. If you can suspend some realism (c’mon, in a realistic setting, that cocktail of drugs would lead Blondie to end up just like her mother, unless Moshfegh is telling us Blondie was secretly dead the whole time), you can enjoy this read about an unlikeable narrator trying to make a better life for herself in an utterly unconventional way. Was it worth the read? I enjoyed the criticisms of the pretentious art scene, even if Moshfegh herself is guilty of these behaviours, and I loved the character of Dr. Tuttle, as well as Reva, because unlike Blondie, Reva was developed and real and you just want her to be happy. If you’re feeling a bit down in the dumps and depressed like the protagonist, perhaps this isn’t the book for you. This book will not make you feel happy, and it doesn’t try to. Only in the latter half of her sleeping year does Blondie finally feel rested, but we the reader are never calm, not for a second.