By Kathryn Rosko, Volunteer
With a premise that almost seems like a thought problem—or a bar bet—Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” centers on a young woman who is beautiful, thin, and rich, and whose only wish is to literally sleep for a full year. That the novel manages to be dark, cynical, hilarious, and ultimately hopeful (in its own eccentric way) is remarkable.
Set in the year 2000, the unnamed narrator of the novel is 24, a recent Columbia graduate who looks like a model and has her own apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She has recently been fired from a job at a top Chelsea art gallery for taking long naps in the supply closet under the stairs during her lunch breaks. Because money is not an issue—her parents are both deceased and she has advisors taking care of all financial concerns—and because she is a self-described “somnophile” who believes that sleep is the best answer to any question, she decides to put her energy into finding a doctor who can prescribe her enough medication to sleep the year away. “I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation. Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”
Enter Dr. Tuttle, the crack psychiatrist the narrator finds in the yellow pages. One of the more hilarious characters in recent literary memory, Dr. Tuttle often appears with a neck brace on and a large cat in her lap, but it is her roundabout medical advice that is laugh-out-loud funny. In addition, and crucially for the story, the helpful doctor is lightning-quick at filling in prescription after prescription for our narrator, while also offering plenty of free samples of dubious-sounding pharmaceuticals (Infermiterol being perhaps the most memorable).
Beyond Dr. Tuttle, our heroine occasionally sees her college friend Reva and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Trevor. Reva seems obsessively jealous of her friend, and oblivious to the fact that she only wants to sleep and watch B movies from the 80s on VHS (Whoopi Goldberg movies are a favorite). Trevor is a fairly abhorrent character: an exploitative egomaniac who only wins her affection because in comparing him with the hipster man-boys surrounding her otherwise, she thinks that at least his arrogance is warranted. Add to this her memories of her parents—her mother, a “bedroom drunk,” and her father, emotionally distant—and it becomes apparent that sleep probably is the best option with these characters her only close connection with the human race.
After securing the right pharmaceutical cocktail thanks to Dr. Tuttle, and partnering with an artist to ensure that her virtually uninterrupted sleep can occur for the last 6 months of the year, our narrator wakes up in time for 9/11/01. She decides to record the news coverage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers: “I watched the videotape over and over to soothe myself that day. And I continue to watch it, usually on a lonely afternoon, or any other time I doubt that life is worth living, or when I need courage, or when I am bored.” Through the ultimate horror and destruction, she finds life and a reason to be awake.
What Moshfegh does so well in this book is to provide a window into the true exhaustion caused by modern life, especially for women. For example, as a woman, it is hard not to feel the forbidden elation when the narrator explains: “I stopped tweezing, stopped bleaching, stopped waxing, stopped brushing my hair. No moisturizing or exfoliating. No shaving.” This is the concept of “taking to bed” writ large and, honestly, on certain days, quite appealing.
But beyond just wanting to shut the world out, there is a larger desire at work for our narrator: true transformation. She honestly believes that a year’s worth of consistent sleep would lead to nothing short of a complete healing, enabling her to wake up a new person at the end of the year. “Oh sleep. Nothing 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.” In our culture, it’s hard to avoid reading countless articles on the importance of sleep. This is advice taken to its extreme. Though it’s worth considering: if you truly shut out all the awfulness of life for an extended amount of time, do you return to the world healed?
Kathryn Rosko is a volunteer at the Pennington Library and lives in Pennington with her husband and two children.