In a year of Covid cloistering, it’s surprising but true: The most entertaining novel I’ve read is 300 pages of a woman sleeping. Ottessa Moshfegh’s darkly funny My Year of Rest and Relaxation follows an unnamed narrator who seems to have it all: size-two waist, large inheritance, and job at a Chelsea art gallery, for a start. Yet this twenty-something Columbia graduate, recently orphaned, remains deeply unsatisfied and detached.
Unwilling to consciously experience any more life than necessary, our hero sets her sights on maximizing the time she spends unconscious. She decides to revitalize her unfulfilling life through a year of sleep – a "great transformation," hopefully. She enlists the loony Dr. Tuttle, who, believing more in prescriptions than introspection, proves willing to supply biologically-implausible amounts of insomnia medication. Our narrator muses:
Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart — this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then — that when I’d slept enough, I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.
Sharply contrasting with this new morbid routine (“three lithium, two Ativan, five Ambien”) is her best friend Reva’s belief in self-help books, wellness diets, and Cosmopolitan magazine: the feel-good bubble at the turn of the 21st century. Her relationship with Reva eventually disintegrates under the pressure of her quest for sleep, but it seems to have been on shaky ground even before the pills. She’s decided that Reva’s only interest in her is based in envy, and once comments on a taped-up picture of her last true friend: “Reva thought it was a loving gesture, but the photo was really meant as a reminder of how little I enjoyed her company if I felt like calling her later while I was under the influence.”
It’s no coincidence that Moshfegh’s protagonist is an art historian by training, though. Throughout her search, she grapples with the intertwined meanings of beauty and life. The cover of the novel, the neoclassical Portrait of a Woman in White, is a helpful clue: a woman whose good looks and elegance can’t hide her dispassionate, detached expression. And this is just what Moshfegh demands of us: When will we have enough money, beauty, and smarts to quell our inner inquietude?
This is a story like nothing I have read before. It is unique, funny, insightful, and entertaining. Moshfegh is a phenomenal writer with extraordinary insight into her characters’ mental lives, which she brings to life flawlessly. Sometimes she makes observations so painfully relatable I can’t help but laugh.
The novel also helped me reflect on how I spend my time. Although I don’t share our narrator's morbid routine, I do find myself spending a little too much time in bed with no particular reason, and this book was like looking in a mirror. A trick mirror, maybe, but a mirror nonetheless. I would recommend this book to anyone who is feeling bored and cooped up, seeking reflection, or just in need of a laugh.