The Big Sleep

My Year of Rest and Relaxation BY Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.

The cover of My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Entirely pristine in its styling, Ottessa Moshfegh’s fourth book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, opens with the phrase “Whenever I woke up . . .” It is understated, implicit wording—the mild “whenever” simultaneously pointing to no precise time and to various specific times. The words “I woke up” crackle with multiple meanings. Woke from a slumber; woke from a stupor; woke from ignorance; woke from delusion; emerged from grief; emerged revived. It all applies. For a book about a woman so broken and exhausted by life at twenty-four that she sets out to sleep for a year, there couldn’t be a more disarmingly apt opening. It made me think of the also marvelous first words of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 Less Than Zero, another stunning existential novel about damaged humans and their superficial world—“People are afraid to merge . . .”

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, like Less Than Zero, is not a complicated book, by which I mean it’s not intricately plotted or densely populated. The story, strictly speaking, never leaves the unnamed narrator’s fascinating, twisted, candid, perceptive mind. And all she wants to do is hibernate, to sleep for a year and emerge “a whole new person.” The title is ironic of course. This is not a trip to the spa but a dissolute hibernation, a total retreat by a soul at once too sensitive to face life and too emotionally shut down to pull it off. The sleep is fueled by drugs: Ambien, Rozerem, Solfoton, Ativan, Xanax, trazodone, Nembutal, lithium, Klonopin, Seroquel, and Lunesta. Valium, Benadryl, and NyQuil. (An especially appalling list in that—if you put much stake in idle playground chatter—most New Yorkers have at least one of those reality-mufflers in their bathroom cabinets. And what does that imply, this pandemic-level proclivity to hibernate?) Waking hours punctuated by trips to the bodega downstairs for coffee, pharmacy runs, monthly appointments with the cute-as-a-Disney-squirrel-thus-terrifying psychiatrist to get new prescriptions; back home to watch Whoopi Goldberg movies on an old VHS while falling asleep again.

In the early months of the experiment, which begins in June 2000, before she’s mastered the art of total, restorative oblivion, her brain enacts, as she sleeps, what she terms “subliminal rebellions.” She wakes to find that she’s been shopping, e-mailing, sexting, smoking cigarettes, and making spa appointments—that she has to then cancel. These are the time-space lacunae when she also calls her best friend, Reva, who faithfully arrives the next day with wine. “I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you’d feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide.”

The relationship with Reva occupies prime real estate in these pages—in part because it’s the only relationship the narrator (with demonstrated half willingness) maintains throughout, but also because it’s the emotional heart of the novel, and as such is shrouded in ambivalence.

Reva scratched at an itch that, on my own, I couldn’t reach. Watching her take what was deep and real and painful and ruin it by expressing it with such trite precision gave me reason to think Reva was an idiot, and therefore I could discount her pain, and with it, mine. Reva was like the pills I took. They turned everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away. And that was exactly what I wanted—my emotions passing like headlights that shine softly through a window, sweep past me, illuminate something vaguely familiar, then fade and leave me in the dark again.

The narrator wears a size two and Reva a four. “No fair,” cries Reva, who is bulimic—an uneasy correlative to the narrator’s own masochism. Reva is a Jennifer Aniston/Courteney Cox type, an eight who is a New York City three. The narrator is an Amber Valletta, whose best asset on her postgrad job hunt is her wardrobe, and whose beauty is her Achilles’ heel. Reva’s loyal, drunken whining is dependable. “I don’t know what it was about Reva. I couldn’t get rid of her. She worshipped me, but she also hated me. She saw my struggle with misery as a cruel parody of her own misfortunes.” Reva is an anchor the narrator clings to despite herself—the only person who fights the sleeping project, the only person who would notice, to put it in terms of suicidal ideation, if the narrator were to just disappear forever.

Marlene Dumas, Drop, 2018, oil on canvas, 15 3/4 × 11 3/4 ". © Marlene Dumas/Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong.
Marlene Dumas, Drop, 2018, oil on canvas, 15 3/4 × 11 3/4 ". © Marlene Dumas/Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong.

“I loved Reva, but I didn’t like her anymore. We’d been friends since college, long enough that all we had left in common was our history together, a complex circuit of resentment, memory, jealousy, denial, and a few dresses I’d let Reva borrow, which she’d promised to dry clean and return but never did.” The narrator is at her most unreliable when reporting about her best friend. The glib introduction, almost a caricature in its disdain, belies both the depth of the narrator’s reliance on Reva and the emptiness of language. Loving-not-liking is a category of feeling that’s used with clichéd heartiness in modern speech—people say it to mean “I don’t like her at all” or “I don’t love her at all” or “I like her but don’t always enjoy being with her.” They rarely (if ever) say it to mean “I love this person as if she were my own flesh.” Which, to be clear, the callow, eloquent narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation never says, and yet she does. Through the narrator’s corrupted and urgent vision of the world, Reva represents life, banal but vital.

At one point, about halfway through her year of hibernation and under the influence of Infermiterol, an especially dissociative pharmaceutical (“Studies have shown,” explains the prescribing quack, “it wipes out existential anxiety better than Prozac”), the narrator boards the Long Island Railroad with a bouquet of white roses to get to Reva’s mother’s funeral. “She was going to be annoying, I could tell. She’d expect me to say comforting things, to put an arm around her shoulders while she sobbed at the funeral. I was trapped. The day would be hell. I would suffer. I felt I might not survive. I needed a dark, quiet room, my videos, my bed, my pills. I hadn’t been this far from home in many months. I was frightened.” It’s as if despite herself and her expressed lack of compassion, and in spite of how scary the sudden hiatus from hibernation is, the narrator can’t not be there for her friend—something deeply entrenched in her subconscious won’t let her sleep through the funeral. The pursuit of total oblivion is vexed (as it is for the characters in Less Than Zero) by caring for another person.

To some extent it is grief in the first place that inspired the sleeping plan. The narrator is recently orphaned. Her father died of cancer her junior year in college, and her mother committed suicide six weeks later. The characterizations of her parents make it clear that it wasn’t devotion that led the narrator’s mother to chase her father into the ground, but something far more dysfunctional. The narrator didn’t grow up surrounded by compassionate people. Her mother, an emotionally shut-down drunk, smashed Valium into the narrator’s baby bottle to make her stop crying; the only fond memories she has of her mother are from when they would oversleep together; she had twenty-four absences from third grade from oversleeping. Her parents used the occasion of her departure for college to ply her with birth-control pills, announce her father’s prostate cancer, and warn her off the muddling effects of the sex hormone oxytocin:

“Biologically, oxytocin serves a purpose,” my father said.

“That warm fuzzy feeling.”

“It’s what bonds a couple together. Without it, the human species would have gone extinct a long time ago. Women experience its effects more powerfully than men do. It’s good to be aware of that.”

“For when you’re thrown out with yesterday’s trash,” my mother said. “Men are dogs. Even professors, so don’t be fooled.”

“Men don’t attach as easily. They’re more rational,” my father corrected her.

Her father’s dying words were “I hope this was all worth it.” He was the nice one.

The narrator doesn’t tailspin immediately after losing her parents. She’s well enough provided for that she can move to a doorman building on the Upper East Side upon her college graduation, take a job as an art-gallery receptionist, and date a sadistic businessman named Trevor. He humiliates and belittles her, and in accordance with her upbringing, she labels it love. Trevor is a profoundly unworthy object of obsession (he’s a kind of squirm-inducing amalgam of every stupid thing young women put up with in the name of first love), which gives him better control over her ego. He’s really so embarrassing that admitting it is harder for the pathologically ambivalent narrator than leaning into the heartbreak. Long into the hibernation, she calls, texts, e-mails—giving Trevor every opportunity to behave like a one-dimensional asshole, as if at some point he’ll be cruel enough to be mad at, as opposed to embarrassed about. “I could picture my selfhood, my past, my psyche like a dump truck filled with trash. Sleep was the hydraulic piston that lifted the bed of the truck up, ready to dump everything out somewhere, but Trevor was stuck in the tailgate, blocking the flow of garbage.”

The precipitating incident to the hibernation is not, however, being orphaned or humiliated; it is bad art. An installment of taxidermy purebreds posed aggressively, red laser beams in place of their eyes. The gallerist is hoping for PETA protests to drive the buzz. The interns whisper excitedly about the artist’s technique. “He locks them in an industrial freezer because that’s the most humane way to euthanize them without compromising the look of the animal. When they thaw, he can get them into whatever position he wants.” The dead puppies and parents, loveless childhood, and evaporation of anything like transcendence in art—this is the cumulative trigger that drives the narrator out of the light. Ultimately, art-as-trainwreck is also the means for glorious rebirth.

It’s really difficult to discuss the extraordinary mechanics of My Year of Rest and Relaxation without spoiling the ending, which I think I shouldn’t. There’s a birth, a rebirth, yes, and it’s a substantial epiphany. But there’s loss too, because important things are lost in time when time is the enemy and obliviousness is the weapon.

Minna Zallman Proctor is the author of Landslide: True Stories (Catapult, 2017).