The book My Year of Rest and Relaxation tells the story of an affluent young woman who recently graduated from Columbia University and decides to take a gap year. But readers soon understand that by taking a gap year the unnamed protagonist intends to sleep throughout the whole year. This makes the novel a literary and over-the-edge experiment explored by young American author Ottessa Moshfegh. Prescription after prescription, drug after drug, like counting sheep, the young protagonist will get some “good American sleep”.
A world of indifference: the opioids’ crisis
Her parents are dead, and nobody really loves her. In a New York pre 9/11, her only friends are incredibly insecure Reva and lunatic Dr. Tuttle, who prescribes every imaginary and possible sleeping pill ever existed. Dr. Tuttle’s character is probably a parody of the opioid crisis in the US, where the highest consumption of opioids (medication) has been registered.
While being rich, pretty and smart might seem an easy way to escape a life of suffering and refusal, these attributes only make her look like and never really be. “Being pretty only kept me trapped in a world that valued looks above all else”, the young woman says at one point. Her life is meaningless, dull and empty. So that a “good American sleep” seems the only reasonable solution, the only thing that can bring her pleasure, freedom and perhaps happiness. The way to fall asleep, then, is to doze off on medications, from real-life Xanax to made-up Infermiterol. This will make her sleep for periods of three days straight. Her only breaks from sleeping are for eating, drinking and taking showers. She needs to survive and to fall asleep again.
A vivid and savage writing
The whole book feels like a joke as Moshfegh’s underlying irony pervades the story. Reva, Dr. Tuttle and Trevor are plainly absurd. It seems they exist by mistake. The same is the case for the unnamed protagonist who makes the reader feel like her life is a huge mistake itself. She wants to sleep, she wants to feel nothing. “Why am I living?”, she keeps asking herself.
Moshfegh paints this cruel reality with a harsh vocabulary and cynical scenes of sex and egotistical behaviors. In the novel, nothing is sacred, not even her best friend’s mother’s death. Everything is worthless: beauty, glory, money, fame, even love. Only sleep is sacred.
A new (writers’) generation
Ottessa Moshfegh is young, unapologetically provocative and talented. She was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize in 2015 with her debut novel Eileen. Her humor is dark and often shocking like that of another young writer of today’s American literary world: Carmen Maria Machado. Her characters are often thorny and troublesome. Likewise, Moshfegh’s characters are always almost unlikable. Yet, in their unlikability, they show their worst flaws and reveal their humanity. Eventually, the reader empathizes with them.
There is a lot of America in this story. Not only New York, not only opioids, not only 9/11. Moshfegh herself is American, but a special kind. Born from a Croatian mother and an Iranian father, Moshfegh represents the most authentic prototype of America: a second-generation kid, and a woman. From her idiosyncratic standpoint, Moshfegh’s novel and signature is a noisy alarm bell for social justice in America, a sleeping beauty par excellence.