Revisiting My Year of Rest and Relaxation in a Post Quarantine World
by Walker Minot
“’Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) is the second-most recent novel by the Jewish-Iranian-American writer Ottessa Moshfegh. It became her breakout book, following the modest commercial and impressive critical successes of her earlier works Eileen, McGlue and Homesick for Another World. The novel is set in 2000 and 2001 in New York City, a time when the DVD was supplanting the VHS tape, when the World Trade Center had twin towers and when the phrase “punk, but with money” described bits and pieces of Manhattan rather than much of the island below 96th Street. Most of its scenes take place in Yorkville on the Upper East Side in the apartment of the main character – a 26-year-old female with no name – along with a memorable excursion to suburban Farmingdale on Long Island and several poignant recollections of the main character’s life at home in a pastoral northeastern college town. This willful isolation, sequestration and purposeful watering down of life to minimize exposure to the horrors outside gives the novel new life during this (hopefully receding for good) time of social distancing and spurred further consideration of it from this reader.
The aforementioned protagonist is beautiful, smart and rich. She has a Columbia University degree, a one-bedroom apartment with an East River view and a hip job working at an art gallery in Chelsea, where she takes naps in the supply closet during her breaks. She scorns much of the art on display, including that of its star artist Ping Xi, “a pubescent-looking twenty-three-year-old from Diamond Bar, California” considered by the curator to be “a good investment because he was Asian American and had been kicked out of CalArts for firing a gun in his studio,” and whose first work to appear in the gallery was created from a process in which “he’d stuck a tiny pellet of powdered colored pigment into the tip of his penis and masturbated onto huge canvasses.” The protagonist, on the other hand, is a big fan of Whoopi Goldberg and Harrison Ford and likes her coffee “working class” from the bodega run by Egyptians around the corner from her apartment. She is also the beneficiary of a large inheritance from her parents. Her father, an esteemed college professor, died of cancer while she was in college and her mother, one of her father’s former students, who became pregnant by him before becoming his wife, drank herself to death soon after.
Her only friend in the city, Reva, is a woman she met in college whom she loves but does not like and whose confidences she receives without providing many of her own in return. The two of them remain close in the way people who have a large body of shared memories tend to be, even if they have little left in common after the initial coincidences that brought them together subside. Discussions about a common vision of the purpose of life, were they to occur between them, would end in disagreement.
The protagonist also has a sort-of boyfriend, Trevor, who works in one of the World Trade Center’s twin towers and for whom she professes love, despite the fact that he is a total Wall Street asshole who views women as assets redeemable only for the varieties of sexual experience they can provide. Though at first the relationship’s existence seems unbelievable, she explains her preference for straightforwardly arrogant men like Trevor over the “‘dudes’ reading Nietzsche on the subway, reading Proust, reading David Foster Wallace, jotting down their brilliant thoughts into a black Moleskine pocket notebook.” For these men—future literary mansplainers all—she has nothing but contempt. Though perhaps a bit on the nose, this wrinkle in the protagonist’s character is as wonderfully humorous and human as Trevor is cold and empty.
The protagonist’s physician, Dr. Tuttle, the crucial accomplice to her ambition that forms the core of the novel’s plot, and the working-class characters common in New York life – her building’s doorman and the young Egyptians who staff the nearest bodega – make up the rest of the novel’s notable characters. Together, they provide a window slit into another New York full of characters and interaction and seediness – punk, seeking money – so unlike the main character’s lived experience.
In her late 20s, with her tragic backstory, enigmatic nature and fascination with strange kinds of adventures, this female protagonist possesses many points in common with the mythical “manic pixie dream girl” often cast as an accelerator for a young male’s revelation, self-reckoning and catharsis. Here, she stars and for her star turn she decides to withdraw from the world and sleep for as much time as possible for months. Lonely and tired of her job, tired of New York, tired of life, she quits the art gallery (leaving behind a memorable artifact), automates her finances, systematizes and minimizes her grocery shopping and excretory needs and acquires a staggering quantity of drugs – sleep-aides, relaxants, etc. – after assuring Dr. Tuttle that she’s not law enforcement. So begins her year of rest and relaxation. Her goal faces obstacles – boredom, blackouts, and stubborn wakefulness – but, for the most part, she faces little resistance to her plan and those in her life put up a minimal fuss. Her ambition is a voluntary quarantine, a social distancing that isolates her from almost all others except those in a selected social pod. In relief against the past 15 months, this book has offered solace, companionship, and served as a kind of practical guide to a radically boring way of being. It has also served as a sometimes maddening—how could someone choose to live like this?—and sometimes sobering reminder of all in the world from which we love to hide.
Though explicit confirmation of it does not come until the end, the protagonist’s project from the beginning is, without doubt, a spiritual one. She is attempting to sleep for two discernable reasons: 1) To avoid having to figure out what to do while awake, and 2) In hopes that she will be able to sleep long enough that a different life will greet her when she wakes, like a hibernating bear who lies in a cave waiting for the weather to change. Except, of what this change would be, could be, or should be, she has no idea.
It is a hallmark of this generation of storytellers to create characters that yearn for something different, something new, but to have no idea what it is; there are so many who speak so well but struggle with what to say. Moshfegh’s work here belongs with Ben Lerner’s, Adelle Waldman’s, and Zach Braff’s Garden State. They all feature characters who live off the edge of history with no language to give shape to the darkness that never went away, that hides on the edge of town, that inspires moving reactions of defiance but has yet to be defined by language. Yes, something is coming – or something better come because we are so bored now – but even the most beautiful, smartest and richest of us cannot conjure the words to define what is next. What we are left with instead is marvel – shock, terror, awe – and, because there is too much to marvel at it all, wit to distinguish us.
In our voluminous and mostly preposterous discourse around the supposed End of History, perhaps we still manage to remark too little on how boring and empty it would be. Moshfegh’s protagonist is, literally, tired of distinction because it all seems feigned, more effort than it could possibly be worth. Instead of further attempts to stand out, she hides under the bed. As she learns by the end, however, none of us can stay hidden for very long. And if the world itself seems asleep, it too will awaken.
Walker Minot is a writer and (remote) office worker in Flatbush, Brooklyn. An MFA student at the St. Joseph’s College Writer’s Foundry, he spends his time writing, reading and worrying about not writing enough while staring out the window, walking around, eavesdropping, taking the subway, and watching sports, movies, and television with his wife.