My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottesa Moshfegh
Well, it’s a while since I read a book that I disliked so thoroughly, but felt compelled to read to the end! This book is all sex and drugs, but no rock’n’roll.
I’d felt put off reading it before by the ‘school of David’ painting on the cover – I couldn’t tell whether the young woman in the painting was wistful or just bored. I’d decided she was bored, and that the book might bore me too, but, since its selection on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, I read it for the team, so to speak.
It follows the life of one young woman in New York, who is insulated from having to work by her inheritance. An only child, she is now an orphan. Left alone, she decides to hibernate, literally, rather than face up to life. She dupes her psychiatrist into prescribing every pill in the manual to help with with her feigned insomnia. (Dr. Tuttle is an amazing character, who should have been struck off for what she does!).
It’s the summer of 2000, and she experiments with all the pills, trying to find the right combination to give her the temporary oblivion she seeks. She discovers that some of the pill combos give her black-outs rather than sleep; she has some outrageous times clubbing while not knowing a dickybird about what she’s sleepwalking through. She orders all kinds of crap too. But she’s cushioned by the money.
Through all of this, she only really sees her ‘friend’ Reva, a bulimic, who stays by her through thick and thin, despite our narrator trying to get her to leave her alone. They need each other. Her awful on-off Wall St boyfriend makes occasional appearances, as does Ping Xi, an artist at the gallery she sort of worked for for a while. Apart from them, the cheerful doorman and the enigmatic Egyptians at the store where she gets her coffees who get mentioned frequently, it’s just her and Reva. The most animated she becomes is when Reva’s mother dies, and she goes upstate with her to the funeral, and then spends all the time ordering her grief-stricken ‘friend’ around and trying to get a nap!
Most of the chapters begin with her waking up:
I woke up alone on the sofa a few days later. The air smelled like stale smoke and perfume. The TV was on at low volume. My tongue was thick and gritty, like I had dirt in my mouth. […] I opened my eyes. The room was dim, the shades were down. As I pushed myself upright, lifting my head slowly off the arm of the sofa, the blood drained out of my brain like sand in an hourglass. My vision pixelated, moiréed, then blurred and womped back into focus.
While I intensely disliked the self-indulgent protagonist, I did enjoy Moshfegh’s writing. Her use of words like ‘womped’ was inspired and such choice of vocabulary paints such vivid pictures, often humorously. Many of the sentences are short and active, making it seem like the narrator can only hold one thought in her head at a time.
Of course, Moshfegh doesn’t really want us to like her protagonist – well, not until the crunch time which happens around a year later (work that out – it’s in the blurb!). I really disliked the narrator who, bucking the trope, is not unreliable in the literary sense – she’s totally reliable in telling us her story – she’s just a real cow, totally unreliable in life – and we despise her over-privileged, self-indulgent, selfish life! Yet, strangely, I found myself ‘enjoying’ the book, although I can’t see it winning the prize. It’s equally hard to give it a score though – I’ll plump for 7/10.
Source: Library. Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Jonathan Cape, 2018) paperback, 304 pages.
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