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 … It was one thing my mother and I had enjoyed doing together when I was a child. She was not the type to sit and watch me draw or read me books or play games for go for walks in the park or bake brownies. We got along best when we were asleep.
- My Year of Rest and Relaxation
I’ll just warn you in advance I’m glad I didn’t need to submit this to a particular publication for review, because the damn thing nearly broke my brain — not for its complexity, but rather because it made me very angry for being somewhat a cop-out of a novel, on a couple of levels. This was another book I’d built up in my mind, a novel that sounded so promising and got such raves I put off reading it until I felt I had the attention span to really soak it in.
How did that turn out? Keep going.
Both parents recently dead within months of each other, our unnamed narrator is a 20-something beauty, a statuesque size 2 blonde and recent Columbia graduate born to wealth and privilege.
In addition to being a very rich orphan she’s also a bitch, though I guess psychiatrists would rush to qualify she’s a manipulative narcissist incapable of empathy for anyone else’s pain, someone who uses anyone in her life naive enough to care about her. Fortunately, there aren’t many of those. Unfortunately, her best friend from college, Reva, bears the brunt of our narrator’s very bad behavior and pays heftily.
At times comically self-absorbed and very matter of fact about her beauty and privilege, the main character is positively revolting as a human being. Reader, I despised her and when I say this it’s a positive. When a writer’s so good she can set me against her main character that’s a win. It means it was intentional, and she’s done her job.
On the other hand, am I being played when Moshfegh crafts a character who’s given every privilege but can’t manage to scrape herself together without a grand act, a theatrical and cavalier game of Russian roulette played with her life just because she’s rich enough to pull it off. Is it the point to not care what happens to her because she has no substance? Another reason I’m glad this isn’t a commissioned review. I can just gloss right on past that one.
Days slipped by obliquely, with little to remember, just the familiar dent in the sofa cushions, a froth of scum in the bathroom sink like some lunar landscape, craters bubbling on the porcelain … Nothing seemed really real. 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.
Set up for life financially, her parents were apathetic nearly to the point of neglect, neither showing a shred of human empathy over the course of her life. Still, their loss hit her hard because it’s supposed to. Reprehensible or not, these two people made her, raised her, and more importantly left her all that glorious cash. Now dead, any chance they’d repent or explain is gone, *Poof!*, along with them. Heartbroken but reluctant to admit so straight out, her hold on life’s so tenuous she knows she needs a drastic action to jolt her out of her depression.
Left ridiculously wealthy, she decides in order to reset her grim life — poor wealthy, beautiful and admired thing — and have any chance at happiness she needs to sleep away a full year, marking a shift between her past and the future she hopes to salvage. Finding an unscrupulous psychiatrist, it’s easy enough obtaining a quantity of prescriptions and free samples to see her through. Through experimentation and much trial and error, resulting in a few wildly outrageous adventures she’s grateful she can’t fully remember, eventually she finds the formula for the maximum amount of uninterrupted sleep. More details than this I won’t give, since all that’s set out elaborately in more than half of the book. You need to read it to find out.
I loved the book through the first half and beyond; I found it nearly impossible setting it down, reading late into the night finishing it, convinced this was a 5-star gobsmacker.
Then a couple things happened. First, I read the last page and it disappointed me she took a ridiculously predictable route. Then, I started thinking about the book as a whole and it pissed me off. Stating the exact reason would be a spoiler, but suffice to say I saw the end coming like a Mormon in a suit down a suburban street: It was too late to slam and bolt the door.
Ottesa Moshfegh is a phenomenal writer in loads of ways. So good. Her sense of rhythm, turns of phrases, use of dialogue and creation of repellent characters illustrate a high level of mastery. The premise of this book was phenomenal but I’m left scratching my head at her choice to set the story around a character with no obstacles whatsoever to carrying out an outrageous plan to sleep for a year. Sure, she hits a few bumps but nothing a Columbia grad can’t work out. How much different and possibly better it could have been if obstacles were put in her path, real life practicalities the rest of us would run up against. If she’d been tested in any real way, not including one little hitch courtesy of Reva, not to be spoiled by telling you what that was.
But this book’s not about that, so I’ll yelling in the wind. It’s all about money, how it can bring you everything and nothing at the same time. Yet, even that’s spoilt by the twee ending so I can’t even say she did that well.
Yes, it’s metaphoric. I get that. And it’s a funny book and see above for the part about it being well-written. It’s all those things, but dammit I’m still pissed off and I don’t want to talk about it anymore. Read it if you want. I’m just done here.
Instead, have another quote:
Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart — this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then — that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. 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.
For the record, this is the second time I can recall a book getting under my skin this badly, irritating me to the point I couldn’t stick around long enough to finish talking it out. And no, I don’t recall the title of the other book. If this were a marriage, I’d divorce My Year of Rest and Relaxation, citing irreconcilable differences.
If only Ottessa Moshfegh weren’t such a damned fine writer.
The only antidote to my little hissy fit would be to try and re-read the book, to see if maybe there’s not some key thing I missed. I was so distracted by the One Big Flaw I already mentioned as twee, I may have flown by some other key to the puzzle, a reason not to pack my bags and leave. But then, if I have to dig that hard it was potentially too subtle.
Compromise: I’m going to read a few reviews, hopefully finding a couple that don’t rely on idolizing what a superb stylist Moshfegh is but specifically address the problems I have with her book. I’m not feeling very optimistic. When a writer’s this much of a darling, a phenom, good luck finding anyone to point out shortcomings.
I’m really going this time. But if I find anything to change my mind about the book I’ll post about it again.