Book Content Warnings: Addiction, Alcoholism, Death, Drug Abuse, Eating Disorders, Emotional Abuse, Suicide
Article Content Warnings: Addiction, Alcoholism, Death, Drug Abuse
“Life was repetitive, resonated at a low hum.”
— Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh is a challenging book for myriad reasons, but most prominently for its simultaneously tragic and hateful narrator. She remains unnamed as the book follows the development of her intentional addiction to sleep medications. In the rare moments she is unable to blot out the world, the narrator dredges up her past, and it becomes clear why she would want to avoid reality. Her childhood in New York City in the ‘90s was characterized by an absent father and a cruel, alcoholic mother. By the time the narrator finished her Columbia undergraduate degree, both of her parents had passed away, leaving her with only her trust fund.
Unlikeable main characters abound in modern fiction, and this novel does not break that mold. The narrator is cruel and self-absorbed, and through her eyes the few people in her life are made similarly unlikeable. She describes her only remaining friend, Reva, as a vapid alcoholic who complains too much about her mother’s terminal cancer and who is jealous of the narrator’s beauty. Moshfegh has not painted a romantically fuzzy vision of turn-of-the-century New York City, but rather a photorealistic iteration of raw emotional underbelly: the damage that human beings do to one another when consequences do not matter.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, while true to life, is not pleasant or particularly graceful. Dirty indoor spaces, rotting processed food, and grotesque physical bodies characterize the novel’s imagery. The grime the book takes care to describe is shocking in its realism, highlighting the worst of the modern world in gruesome detail. It is the unreliable narrator who focuses on these ugly things. Her observation of off-putting minutiae is embarrassingly relatable, and leaves the audience worrying what other moral failings they might share with the narrator.
Unfortunately, the narrator’s grimness also makes the book easy to read as an unnuanced disparagement of the modern world. It reads as a critique of modernity’s inhumanity without any display of the humanity it asks for. Certainly, there is more to this book. The juxtaposition of an intolerable narrator with the knowledge of her painful childhood begs the question: is it the narrator’s fault that she is so unlikeable, or is it the fault of the world and people who shaped her? But the book is mostly written in flashback and imagery—formats that do not lend themselves to answering this question. When the narrator is not wallowing in memories or describing the most uncomfortable aspects of the world, she is calculating exactly which sleeping pills and mood stabilizers she will take in order to minimize time she spends awake. These repeated lists of drugs and their different effects on the narrator’s consciousness provide the audience an education in prescription sedatives, and little else, besides filling the pages and allowing the author to avoid taking any stances with her book. My Year of Rest and Relaxation makes it easy to construct a social commentary that excuses the narrator’s privilege at its worst and shows a bleak and hopeless worldview at its best.
Should the audience share the narrator’s resentment of the modern capital-driven order, or should they lean into their dislike of the narrator and blame her for the abuse she reroutes towards others? My Year of Rest and Relaxation would be a better book if it took the same cast of characters and, instead of spending so much time romanticizing the details of the narrator’s addiction, explored possible answers to this question instead. Certainly, profundities do not lie on the surface, but there must be more to the work’s core than a mirror reflecting the reader’s own opinion back at themselves.
Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from New England. Eileen, her first novel, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Death in Her Hands, her second and third novels, were New York Times bestsellers. She is also the author of the short story collection Homesick for Another World and a novella, McGlue. She lives in Southern California.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation can be purchased here.