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Review: “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

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My Year Of Rest and Relaxation, a 2018 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, is the story of an unnamed recent art history graduate in mid twenties. Place: New York. Time: 2000/2001. Plot: The heroine decides to sleep her life away, or at least a year of it, a feat she tries to achieve DIY-style with a help of an arsenal of sleeping pills, primarily prescriptions, which she obtains from her disinterested and eccentric doctor through low-effort deception. She then later self-administers herself doses and combinations so lunatic that it makes the reader wonder if she is even going to make it to the end of the book. And as the story goes on, it becomes more and more astonishing just how much effort it takes to rest… It is in many ways a surreal story, of which I do not want to reveal too much here, despite the fact that everything that happens is perfectly plausible—an elegant discord creating a tension that adds to the book’s appeal.

On another level, it is a book about the urge to disconnect, dissociate and disappear. In that, My Year Of Rest and Relaxation mirrors a theme already probed by Moshfegh in her earlier novel, Eileen, with the difference that while Eileen seems to be escaping a condition that seems, objectively speaking, worth escaping (a paranoid alcoholic father, low self-esteem, a shitty job, a suffocating small town atmosphere, …), in My Year the respective conditions to be escaped are, at least ostensibly, very different.

Ottessa Moshfegh

The heroine here is young and beautiful, with a handsome fortune in a form of an inherited house, with plenty of free time on her hands, with a nice place to live, with a future ahead of her should she want it—and yet, it is this seemingly convenient universe that she cannot bear. This solipsism put in practice, this drive towards alienation and isolation, this achieving a strange narcoleptic satori (sic!) verging on a deathless suicide in the detachment of sleep manifests itself throughout the book in the already corroded interpersonal relationships—the descriptions of which are masterly but often painful to read—with her only friend, her employer, her acquaintances, the shop clerks, her ex-non-ex-partner, and with her deceased parents.

Effortless that her life may be, she is tired of it. And it is a very accomplished and holistic tiredness, both physical and mental. A tiredness from, of and with. Moreover, a very contemporary one—unlike its previous incarnations, such as e.g. existential ennui or Baudelairean spleen, in My Year… this tiredness appears raw and almost physiological. Violent. Void of any romantic or ennobling traits, as it is no longer an expression of a struggle towards something greater but rather the inevitable exhaustion of some past struggle. Lacking an element of a potentiality, premated by sheer lack of energy for any more. This tiredness that the world imposes upon us while refusing to relieve it, leaving this additional burden upon its victims. Finally, and paradoxically, as we learn from Moshfegh, in this contemporary predicament relaxation becomes as taxing of a task as is everything else, as one cannot resist the impression that it would be actually simpler for the heroine to put the R&R idea to rest and instead just go on with her life. 

Baudrillard once observed that in America the arrival of night-time or periods of rest cannot be accepted. If this insight is true then the protagonist’s project is inherently anti-American. And if America is the epitome of the spirit of the contemporary West, then her R&R becomes a rebellion against this very spirit. I find it interesting to read this story as an attempt to spell out a certain condition, as a contemporary parable of sorts. I find it interesting to read it along people like e.g. Mark Fisher, who, it seems to me, comments in his Capitalist Realism on precisely the same exhaustion when he observes that, for his students: “There is a sense that ‘something is missing’—but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.” In many ways, this strange “something is missing” is the subject of the book, never really there, but nonetheless in its absence dictating all the moves and moods, and responsible for the corresponding everything that is present—the pills, the sleep, the flight. If Moshfegh presents an exaggerated, and in many ways surreal solution, at the same time the problem she points towards is only too real.

Lives in Copenhagen, volunteers at Ark, has a degree in philosophy and political science. Wrote his thesis on the notion of Angst in Heidegger’s philosophy, his dissertation on Arendt's account of totalitarianism.

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