Sleep away your problems

Moshfegh’s novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” focuses on the internal struggles with the complexities of reality

Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation does something altogether different from most contemporary literature. The novel follows about eighteen months in the life of a woman who attempts to sleep as much as possible for one year, with the hope that she will emerge on the other side of this pilgrimage a renewed, better version of herself. Her parents die when she is in college and still essentially a child by her own admission. Her frigid childhood complicates the matter, as does her post-graduation, underpaid job at an art gallery. All this weighs down on her and convinces her to quit her job and embark upon a year of largely drug-induced sleep, or as she names it, the year of rest and relaxation. On its face, this original premise doesn’t sound like it could carry a 288-page novel. Yet it manages to do this and much more. 

Beside the narrator herself, the book is populated with characters whose desires – whether material or sexual or both – enervate them either partially or totally. None of them ever question whether they can continue in this state of mind forever, and the narrator finds this attitude worthy of contempt or pity, as will most readers. After all, the novel is set in the year 2000, when the optimism of the Cold War’s end and the beginning of a new millennia had yet to be destroyed by the 9/11 attacks. The reality of that impending disaster makes the narrator’s pessimism seem especially prescient, and the other character’s predilections especially unsustainable. This contrast contains the novel’s most humorous passages, mostly between the narrator and her only close friend, a fellow Columbia graduate named Reva.

At the same time, our protagonist is not entirely without hope. She genuinely believes that this year of sleep will save her life. The precise connection between exorbitant sleep and self-improvement is never clear, but at the center of her project is a desire to separate her emotions from the many painful memories of her recent past; Most of these memories are connected to her parents. That struggle with the past is the central issue of the book and the origin of its most important question: How does anyone come to terms completely with a difficult, even traumatic past, and is it even possible to do so? 

It’s not an easy question, and some might say it’s better left unanswered. Certainly, the narrator seems willing to embark on her project only because there appears to be no other feasible choice. Life can’t continue sustainably until the problem is dealt with. She says in no uncertain terms that she will kill herself if she is unsuccessful. All this is startling insofar as the protagonist has few material problems. 

She lives in a nice Manhattan apartment, has enough money from parental inheritance and other property that she does not need to work, and is objectively attractive. One might like to use these attributes as reasons to write off her inner struggle as frivolous, but it’s hard to do so. In doing that, we would have to pretend our own happiness is linked only to our present material possessions. We would have to pretend that our past has no bearing on either our present or our future, when we know it to be quite the opposite. 

It would be too simple to say My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a novel about an existential crisis. 

That would imply only the narrator’s disdain for the world, and the struggle that naturally stems from that disdain. The novel plainly has this quality and doesn’t try to hide it. However, Moshfegh’s book also portrays a crisis of the self, and of the past, which makes it far more powerful than most other literature published today. 

It has a devotion to the truth that readers will find unnerving, but also refreshing. It shows that facing the difficult truth is far, far better than living with an easy lie. And although one may question her methods, few can reasonably deny that the narrator’s struggle is just as much a part of our world as it is of her world.

~Duncan Hoag, Staff Writer~


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