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edge staff writer


Sleeping beauty - ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’

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There are those who will rail against the world, who will do everything in their power to strike back against any real or imagined powers that hold them down. And there are others who want nothing more than to simply remove themselves from the fight, to check out until such time as their problems have somehow miraculously solved themselves.

The unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (Penguin Press, $26) falls very much into the latter category; she’s a young woman who on the surface appears to have it all, yet desires to completely ignore the world as it rolls on around her … and is willing to go to some extreme measures to achieve that ignorance.

Our narrator is floating through New York City as the 1990s come to an end. She’s young and blonde and pretty, with a Columbia degree, a sweet apartment on the Upper East Side and an easy gig at a hip gallery. She looks to have it all – or at least a reasonable facsimile of “all” considering time and place.

But looks can deceive. She pays for that apartment with money from her inheritance, money she got after the parents she wasn’t particularly close to died. She has yet to find her way to mourning them properly. She’s only got two personal relationships that are anything even close to close. There’s her erstwhile best friend Reva, who bears the brunt of nigh-unwavering scorn and disdain. And then there’s Trevor, her on-again off-again Wall Street beau who uses her largely as a placeholder between relationships he actually wants to maintain.

She loses herself in the banal warmth of mediocre movies, watching the same films over and over again, loading the VCR with repetitive stories that soothe her and never challenge her. Eventually, she decides that what she really wants, more than anything, is to simply … sleep. To sleep all the time, save for whatever food/water/bathroom necessities might crop up.

To that end, she finds a shady quack of a psychiatrist. Dr. Tuttle is weird and unpredictable, but is also perfectly willing to take our narrator at her word regarding her claims of insomnia. To that end, Tuttle happily prescribes a multitude of pharmaceutical solutions – many of which are being offered up not for their intended purposes, but for their range of side effects.

Our heroine plunges into the pharmaceutical fog, constantly seeking the ideal combination of drugs that will allow her to plunge into the state of de facto hibernation that she so desperately craves. She soon discovers, however, that some of these solutions present problems of their own – problems springing from what she has started doing while ostensibly asleep. For her to truly achieve her goal, she’s going to need help – help that may come from an unexpected source.

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is something special. This story of self-inflicted loneliness is bleak and funny, marked throughout with memorable moments and turns of phrase. It’s a fascinating story of how perceived alienation can evolve into actual alienation through little more than one’s selective dismissal of self-awareness.

Ottessa Moshfegh is wildly talented. To create such baleful, willful characters, to construct a narrative around these people who are not just unlikeable, but unapologetically so … and to do it in a rich and engaging way is a remarkable feat of literary legerdemain. These are actively off-putting characters, swollen with ego and entitlement – and yet, they enthrall.

From one angle, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” reads like a condemnation of the shallow nature of the young and hip from that particular time period, awash with trust fund kids playing at creative endeavors while secure in the knowledge that a giant pile of money will break whatever falls they might endure. From another, it’s an understanding nod to the notion that grieving is never easy and that loss impacts all of us in different ways and for different reasons. It’s the temptation to withdraw into oneself amped to the nth degree – introversion cranked to 11.

Regardless of how you choose to read it, one thing’s for sure: Moshfegh is one HELL of a writer. Plenty of folks a lot more qualified than me have called her one of the best of her generation; I certainly can’t see any reasonable argument against it. Her scenes are painted with vivid tactility and her characters are meticulously rendered. And the dialogue … good God, the dialogue. It’s fluid and sharp while still maintaining the verisimilitude that is sometimes lost when talented writers start really flexing. And Moshfegh flexes throughout, unafraid to lean into her talents and embrace them. She’s good and she KNOWS she’s good.

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is another outstanding effort from one of our great young writers. It is a funny, sad and delightfully weird book, starring the sort of broken person in whom Moshfegh specializes. It is smart and soulful and absolutely one of the best books of the year.


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