On my last trip to Miami, FL, I made sure to carve out time to stop into Books & Books, my favorite independent bookstore. I went in knowing I was going to purchase one title, but wound up making a few impulse purchases too, including Ottessa Moshfegh's My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
Within a sea of books displayed across a long, wooden table, this cover jumped out at me. It was immediately clear there would be something snarky about this book, based on the juxtaposition of the hot pink font and the vintage-looking painted portrait.
I knew nothing about this author or this book before I picked it up in the store. When I told a friend (who has similar taste in books) that I was planning to read it, she said, "Oh no. That book should come with a warning. It's very depressing."
Despite her words of caution, I decided to read it anyway. It turns out that the book is in fact very depressing. It's the story of a young woman who wants to sleep away her sorrows. It starts with napping at home, then napping at work, and eventually escalates to sleeping around the clock with the aid of some very potent drugs.
The narrator seeks additional prescriptions and knows the only way to make that happen is through a psychiatrist. She picks a name out of the phone book, Dr. Tuttle, and this woman turns out to be wildly unethical. In this case, it works in the narrator's favor, because Dr. Tuttle continues to write her prescriptions, despite her outright lies about her symptoms.
In between her days of sleeping, her best friend Reva comes over to check on her. On page 7, "I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you'd feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide. Not that what I was doing was suicide. In fact, it was the opposite of suicide. My hibernation was self-preservational. I thought it was going to save my life."
She continues, "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. She worked as an executive assistant for an insurance brokerage firm in Midtown. She was an only child, a gym rat, had a blotchy red birthmark on her neck in the shape of Florida, a gum-chewing habit that gave her TMJ and breath that reeked of cinnamon and green apple candy. She liked to come over to my place, clear a space for herself on the armchair, comment on the state of the apartment, say I looked like I'd lost more weight, and complain about work, all while refilling her wine glass after every sip."
Reva serves as the narrator's touch point to the outside world. When she enters the apartment, she brings with her the messiness of the life she's living "out there," including an affair with her boss, Ken, and dealing with an aging and sick parent.
We do get glimpses at the narrator's life before the "year of rest," including flashbacks to weekends away with her ex-boyfriend, Trevor, and tense moments with her boss, Natasha. She had been working at an art gallery called Ducat, where an emerging artist, Ping Xi, was the star exhibitor. He resurfaces later in the story in a pretty disturbing way.
Moshfegh's writing is unlike anything else I've read. Jia Tolentino wrote for The New Yorker, "Ottessa Moshfegh is easily the most interesting contemporary American writer in the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible."
While many of the things she describes in this book are upsetting, they are also fascinating.
I noticed that she writes with a strange specificity. For example, amidst the narrator's monologues about needing sleep and wanting to shut out the world, when she is awake and seeking comfort, she turns to the actress and comedian Whoopi Goldberg. Her fandom (and how often it's mentioned) is a bizarre way to add another layer to an already complex character.
Moshfegh just released a new book called Lapvona. She also wrote two more novels, Eileen and Death in Her Hands.
After I finished this, I need to move on to something lighter. I chose Tokyo Ever After and can't wait to tell you about.