My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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.

Tra la!

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.

So.

The end?

The writing librarian and her work: plotting and paring

Good as my word, I’ve been busily hard at work getting my freelance writing endeavor up and running. I’m in stage one: panicked confusion.

Apparently, before you can get much of anywhere you have to brand yourself. I’ve been at work watching videos and reading articles on how a person does that, which so far as I can determine means you need to specialize, find a pithy way of expressing what you’re about, then set to work finding people who’ll pay for what you’re offering.

Sounds simple but oh dear god it’s not. When you’re a multi-niche specialist as I am, cutting down what you’re doing is like pruning limbs from your body. The good news is I’m spoiled for choice. This is why I could never abide people with no hobbies or interests. I’m awash with them.

So, which to keep and which to sideline?

Twinned with that, you need to market and promote, naturally, write a portfolio and get out there and flog it. The good thing about it is you’re your own boss, and the terrible thing about it is the same. You set your hours, but you’re still responsible when you don’t meet self-imposed deadlines.

Then there’s the produce on demand bit. Once you have clients, that’s the meat of the profession. That, and filling orders once you’ve pitched ideas to editors, of course.

It all gets very real, very quickly.

I’ve been less structured in my freelancing up ’til now, letting work come to me rather than going after focused, carefully chosen clients. But seeing as I’m actively working very hard getting back into the library profession and peddling my writing as a second income stream, it’s getting a lot more intense. There’s no end of work to be done, and if you don’t get a good grip on things you can easily go flying off into the ether. If you listen closely, you can hear the screams of writers ricocheting into The Deep.

There went another one. RIP.

My 2019 freelance goals are to find a stable column writing gig or two, a handful of clients I’ll produce for regularly and a steady stream of querying and filling orders. That’s as a second job, working part time alongside the mythical full time librarian position I’m madly pursuing.

They say if you want a job done right, ask a busy person. Sounds idiotic, but it’s actually true. If I want to do what you’re asking, I’ll find a way to fit it into my rotation. Once you’re used to getting a lot of things done rapid-fire, it’s easy to gauge if yes, I have time for that, or no, sorry, find another writer.

I won’t hesitate to tell you yes or no. I can see everything I’m doing at a glance, the way I’ve set up my schedule. I know exactly what slots are open, and have prioritized every detail.

I told you I’ve been busy.

The professions of librarian and freelance writer go hand in hand, the one feeding off the other. While it’s not true librarians spend their days reading (I only wish), in every library job I’ve held I’ve been able to flex my writing muscles. I’ve been a social media manager and in-house editor in both library jobs I’ve had so far, as well as forming a writing group that’s still active more than a decade on. If my scheduled allowed, I’d be active there still. As it’s not, I’m considering pitching a start up writers group at another library, slotted to fit into my free time.

I bring my personality to my employer, taking on the role of the voice the community comes to associate with the library. And I’m damn good at it.

You may have noticed I have rather a strong voice. I use it to good effect, given a public platform. Now, I just need the library.

Once I’m installed as a librarian, I’ll be able to say yes more often to the publishers knocking on my virtual door. Yes, I’ll read and review your book. I’ll have an audience of library patrons, in addition to my reach as Bluestalking and associated review outlets. From there I generally go to work disseminating reviews, author interviews and events to the general public via the local media. It’s never far from my mind hooking up my library with writers on tour, either.

It all comes together quite nicely. Though not without an awful lot of work. But then, when it doesn’t feel like work it’s the absolute best thing on earth. I miss it, and I’m bound and determined to get back to it. And when I’m determined, very little stands in my way.

But first, the planning: The branding and the specializing and the tweaking.

2019: I’m giving you fair warning. You’re going to be my year. 2017 and 2018 were good efforts, but it’s time to put away the first draft and get on with the big work: Editor at large of my own life.

Starting my reading year: The Nanny

 

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

 

A light start to my 2019 reading year with this fast-paced darling of 2018, a thriller that swept Europe, washing up on the shores of America in early 2018. Despite knowing I have next to zero luck with buzz books – the latest flavor of the month thriller – I tried hunting it down, anyway. It was the title that did it. I like the device of nannies as main characters; their narrative usefulness is broad. On the one hand, they can serve as vehicles to save children from bad parents or dire situations. On the other, they can be very bad people, indeed. What’s more horrifying than parents inadvertently leaving their children in the hands of a paid, supposedly vetted psychopath? Answer: precious little.

Nannies, well done, make for delicious characters.

 

When Myriam decides to return to work as a lawyer after having children, she and her husband look for the perfect nanny for their son and daughter. They never dreamed they would find Louise: a quiet, polite, devoted woman who sings to the children, cleans the family’s chic Paris apartment, stays late without complaint, and hosts enviable kiddie parties. But as the couple and the nanny become more dependent on one another, jealousy, resentment, and suspicions mount, shattering the idyllic tableau. Building tension with every page, The Perfect Nanny is a compulsive, riveting, bravely observed exploration of power, class, race, domesticity, motherhood, and madness—and the American debut of an immensely talented writer.

  • amazon.com

 

Ultimately, the point was moot because Barnes & Noble took its sweet time noticing the frenzied press the book was getting, neglecting to stock stores local to me. When I couldn’t find it and couldn’t be bothered ordering it, I blew it off. If it was meant to be, it would be. I had plenty else keeping me busy, and it was doubtful the book lived up to the hype, anyway.

Then December rolled around. I was out buying myself books as consolation prizes to soothe bumps and bruises earned in 2018 and there it was: that smoking hot novel with enticing title and cover art. It was wearing something slinky over those stockings with seams down the back, spiky patent shoes and a smoldering, come hither stare.

You want fifteen bucks? You got fifteen bucks.

It nailed it; I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. It’s a thriller, so you know whodunnit immediately. It’s the why that keeps you guessing. Why does a perfect nanny, more friend than employee, turn into a murderer?

So many reasons, at heart a very selfish, narcissistic one. It’s dreadful, just horrifying. Well done, Leila Slimani. You created a monster. Not every Amazon reader was a fan, but then half those predictably droned on about how unlikable the main character is. Psst … She’s a villain, that’s kind of the point. If she’d killed the children, but then turned into this charmingly quirky character you loved, would that have worked as a believable story?

“I’m cute and endearing, but whoops! Killed the kids!”

Womp, womp, womp …

Quit being ridiculous. When a writer’s trying to turn your stomach and succeeds, when you want to spit in the character’s face, she’s done her job. The cover blurb told you this wasn’t going to end well. You’re in the wrong section, Skippy. Trot along to Self Help, there’s a good boy.

The other main criticism leveled at The Perfect Nanny is the characters weren’t fleshed out enough. I agree, it was a bit spare. But also, it’s a translation. Details are always lost that way. I give some credence to those who wanted to know more, but a thriller writer is hobbled. She cannot tip her hand. All the weight of a thriller lies in not knowing the motivation of the bad guy until the very end. The less you know of the character, the less likely you are to guess what’s in her head. Could Slimani have pulled the curtain back a bit further? Yes, she could have. It’s a legitimate beef, but I’d rather she leaned toward vague than risked letting slip the crucial why before the very end. Had I guessed the denouement, I’d have flung the book in the garbage.

Leila Slimani did her job, and I enjoyed the time I spent with her writing. It absolutely flew. What’s funny is I’m struggling to recall many specifics. I’m thinking those people who complained things were a little too sparse may have been onto something but stand by my feeling she pulled it off. It’s well done, intelligent and paced nicely. It was New Year’s Eve, I was sitting alone concentrating on ignoring the fact it’s a holiday and I wasn’t spending it in Edinburgh, immersed in a book I’d been trying to procure, off and on, all year. It was exactly what I needed to read at exactly the right time

What’s left to say besides read it? Yes, do. Read it. If you enjoy thrillers, especially books about evil nannies who do terrible things, read it. Read the hell out of it. I’d be surprised if you came back and said “that was really awful; I hated it and now I hate you”, unless you don’t like books about psychos. I do really like books about psychos. Hell, I attract emotionally stunted, crazy people – not necessarily on purpose. It must be some pheromone I give off. They’re good company. Interesting, at least.

The Perfect Nanny is a kick starter. It’s that book to pick up when you’re stuck, when you’re restless and can’t think what to read next. On the beach? Read The Perfect Nanny! On a plane? The Perfect Nanny!

Patterson and Grisham are shit. Read The Perfect Nanny!

Wow. That was fun. Let’s call this a review palate cleanser and back away slowly.

Hashtag WINNING.

Since The Perfect Nanny, I’ve read one hell of a great book deserving of its National Book Award win. It’s decidedly not forgettable, spare nor lacking detail, not a book for the beach. It’s emotionally exhausting, especially if you’ve ever lost an unrequited or impossible love, left wondering if a best friend could have been a one, true love of a lifetime. Maybe you already knew it was so, but had no power to change anything. And then that person’s dead – in this case, by his own hand. It’s brutal and wonderful. Wonderfully brutal.

It’s Sigrid Nunez’s phenomenal The Friend, and it’ll be up next.

Meanwhile, my home office is getting much closer to being set up, and I’m writing this on my new desktop computer. Scribbled novel and memoir drafts haven’t been transcribed, since I haven’t shelled out for MS Office, but that’s coming. Soon. Right now I cringe at the cost, but let’s face it, there’s no choice.

Hell.

Also working on reading Moby Dick and associated books about the book and Herman Melville, the 200th birthday boy of 2019. That’s in the midst of nesting in my new place, acclimating two nervous rescue cats and coming to terms with What’s Next for Me.

It’s been busy. Always is.