I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation over a couple of days while I was ill last week, and there’s definitely something quite claustrophobic and nightmarish about certainly the story of a woman trying to sleep for a year, while you yourself are unwell and sleeping a lot.
I had been wanting to read Moshfegh’s second novel for a while now, so was delighted when a colleague lent me a copy. From the first chapter, I was completely sucked in, at first laughing in wonder at the hilarity of the situation, and the laziness of the protagonist, and then finding it increasingly painful and hard to read.
The unnamed protagonist is selfish, spoilt and surrounded by a cast of equally unlikeable characters, including the awful older ex-boyfriend she knows is a waste of space, a questionable therapist whose prescriptions allows her to fuel her worrying experiment, and her best friend, Reva, who is always there but never seems to be listening. If you wanted an example of selfish, toxic friendship, this would be it. The narrator doesn’t really care when Reva’s mother dies, and Reva seems more concerned that the narrator is getting increasingly skinny (“No fair”), than her best friend’s mental state. It’s the early noughties in New York – girls don’t care about anything other than brunch and what clothes they’re wearing – and it’s brilliant.
What Moshfegh really masters is this kind of slow car crash of events. You can’t help but find yourself increasingly horrified about the narrator’s apathy towards life, which soon spirals into this era of self-destruction. The plot could be seen as repetitive (sleep, wake up for a bit, sleep) and to me, that was kind of the point. The narrator is desperate to achieve her goal of uninterrupted sleep – a rebirth – and she will go to extreme lengths and dangerous drugs to achieve this. So the repetition is all part of it. It’s how she is trying to regain some control over her life. It’s the repetition of monotony and stupidity – somehow it’s completely gripping and addictive to read.
At the end there isn’t really a resolution other than the events of 9/11 which perhaps point towards the fact that life is going to have to change in New York after this. The narrator has achieved her goal of sleeping for a year, but she’s also lost everything and everyone she loves. Is that the point? I don’t know. And I don’t know if it is a punishment or reward for the narrator I loved to hate.
I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like My Year of Rest and Relaxation. It’s oddly unsettling and empty – like how I imagine the narrator’s drug-induced sleeps are. It will make you laugh, it will shock you. And ultimately it will leave a bad taste in your mouth – like waking up from some kind of fever dream where you’re not sure where you are, and what’s right and wrong anymore.