Sleeping the Pain Away: A Young Woman Takes a Chill Pill in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”

When asked about her favorite holiday, writer Ottessa Moshfegh says, “I don’t know if I’ve […]

CJ Green / 7.11.18

When asked about her favorite holiday, writer Ottessa Moshfegh says, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been on holiday…?” And then laughs. On the one hand, I suppose she could be speaking literally. But I take the above response as an invitation. Do human beings ever really relax? After all, we never catch a break from the predominant source of our exhaustion: us.

This is the central conflict in Moshfegh’s haunting and darkly funny new book My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which reviewers have called “the finest existential novel not written by a French author.” (It’s already been optioned for a film, despite only being released this week.) The book’s epigraph demonstrates its underlying anthropology:

If you’re smart or rich or lucky
Maybe you’ll beat the laws of man
But the inner laws of spirit
And the outer laws of nature
No man can
No, no man can…

“The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey,” Joni Mitchell

R&R tells the story of a 24-year-old Manhattanite who plans to hibernate for a year. To do so, she enlists the help of “the worst psychiatrist in the annals of literature” — Dr. Tuttle — who distributes prescription drugs like Halloween candy. And because Ambien, Rozerem, Ativan, Xanax, trazadone, lithium, Seroquel, Lunesta, and Valium aren’t enough, Dr. Tuttle offers a more powerful (fictional) pill: Infermiterol. Over-indulging, the narrator begins blacking out for days at a time. Which is perfect, she thinks. The more sleep, the better.

On the surface, this narrator (unnamed) has everything a young woman could want. She’s “tall and thin and blond and pretty.” She survives on a substantial inheritance, is well-educated, and has the perfect entry-level work placement at an avant-garde art gallery—that is, until she gets fired for sleeping on the job. Antagonized by the “inner laws of spirit,” the narrator believes she will eventually be killed—or kill herself—at the behest of an existential nag: a lack of interest in life. Her decision to hibernate, she assures us, “was the opposite of suicide. My hibernation was self-preservational. I thought it was going to save my life.”

I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation initially. I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.

This narrator is brutally honest, emphasis on brutal. She hates her best friend, Reva, who during the course of this novel is the only person to check in on her. She considers Reva fake, greedy, and jealous. The narrator, too, knows herself to be vain. She judges others harshly because she judges herself harshly. All this she hopes to sleep off. She hopes, by the end of her year, she will emerge from her cocoon reborn, with a greater tolerance for everyday experience: “If, when I woke up in June, life still wasn’t worth the trouble, I would end it.”

Ironically, what cradles Moshfegh’s deadly parable is her own suspense of judgment; Moshfegh writes her characters as/where they are, never winks at the reader to suggest, “This narrator is a real piece of work, isn’t she?” Although she is. Moshfegh allows this young woman to tell her story, in all its humor and horror. For this reason, I wouldn’t call this book a satire. Earnestness is the basis from which an unexpected tenderness arises. You see it in Reva’s unyielding “love” for the narrator. You also see it in the narrator’s genuine determination to become something better.

Dr. Tuttle, the outlandish psychiatrist, evokes the dark side of today’s pharmaceutical industry. But also, more generally, Dr. Tuttle gives voice to the ‘fix-it’ culture of which we all partake. When someone shares a problem with us—dissatisfaction with work, trouble in a relationship—we are often quick to suggest a solution, to think we have the answer. Dr. Tuttle doesn’t listen to a word her client says. She constantly forgets the narrators’ parents have died. She’s preoccupied with her own paranoia. She’s also hilarious.

Towards the end of the novel, Dr. Tuttle admits that prescription drugs aren’t the only possible solution to the narrator’s debilitating angst:

“There are alternatives to medication, though they tend to have more disruptive side effects.”

“Like what?”

“Have you ever been in love?”

This slight exchange holds what I perceive to be the key, or one of them. Per usual, there’s a sense of humor, but that humor doesn’t mean it’s not true. Love is the medicine. It is more disruptive than pills, more enduring than judgment. Only love can “beat the inner laws of spirit.”

If I’m honest, a year of rest and relaxation sounds pretty good. I’d like more sleep than I get. I’d like to wake up Monday morning and feel rested.

But of course the narrator’s capacity to embark on this journey is, in the first place, a gift of privilege. It’s a fantasy, not something many of us could possibly replicate, even if we wanted to. One reviewer said, “I wanted to take the narrator and put her to work in ‘the real world.’” Our narrator is rich enough to have successfully extricated herself from any social dependence, and has no demands on her time. She has checked out of everything in a way that no real person could afford to. Because, eventually, we have to go to work. Eventually, we have stuff to do. But as the narrator says, “I was born into privilege, and I’m not going to squander it…I’m not a moron.”

I find this self-assurance oddly inspiring. Because we do not, as the narrator says, have a God “stalking our souls,” pulling our strings like dummies. If this is true, then we are, actually, free: to rest, to play, to work. To let go of the pressure to be perfect; to pull back the curtain on our daily performance. To kick back every once in a while. To relax. Consider that you, too, may be sitting on an extraordinary privilege. Only a moron would squander it.