Updated: Dec 12, 2020
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
in a nutshell Looking like an off-duty model even on a bad day, the unnamed narrator of this novel drifts in and out of sleep, mostly in. She shuns the advice of her only, troubled, irritating friend Reva to down instead more and more of the strong and stronger pills given her by Dr Tuttle, the only 'psychiatrist' who would answer her at 11 pm on a Tuesday. All she wants to do now, unemployed and rich enough to remain unemployed, is to sleep away the emptiness of her life - the Upper East Side, the art world, her dead parents. Slowly, among pills and three-day blackouts, the meaning of her unorthodox quest will unfold.
why? A well-written case study of modern-day angst, engrossing, easy to read, but thought-provoking too.
flavour extract OH, SLEEP. nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness. I was not a narcoleptic - I never fell asleep when I didn’t want to. I was more of a somniac. A somnophile. I had always loved sleeping. It was one thing my mother and I had enjoyed doing together when I was a child. She was not the type to sit and play games or go for walks in the park or bake brownies. We got along best when we were asleep.
I read this novel by chance, after reading a review of Moshfegh's first novel Eileen. I was slightly taken aback by how much it drew me in! The narrator is not someone who would immediately awaken my empathy or even my sympathy, she's too beautiful and privileged for that. And sympathy never became a relevant part of my reading process, despite it being a first-person narrative. The writing is beautiful but simple, in character with the narrator, and the narrative itself remains all on the surface. I felt that what was written on the page was all there was to know, that the girl and her desperation were both complex and flat. Perhaps that's the beauty of shallowness, or depth exposed to the point of lying flat. Overall it was not an emotional read. The girl's anxiety, something I could have empathised with if it had been presented differently, is never recreated through words, made palpable through syntax or lexis. It's described but not shown. It is rather her sense of aimlessness that seeps through, a result of growing up without love - her mother could casually reveal that her father had cancer during a conversation about contraception. Part of the pleasure of reading may well be the slight sense of superiority that tempts the reader: what more pathetic than the predictable pain of a spoiled brat, the cliched gorgeous rich white girl? Yet, I grew fond of the narrator, of her honesty and her ill-fitting, her awkwardness and even her malice, accompanied as it always is by a high dose of intelligent self-disgust. Intelligence, money and beauty may have carried her forward but they have also left her adrift.
What is striking is the girl's faith in sleeping as a way out of her drifting, her wholehearted embracing of lethargy as the way to finally overcome it. Her unusual way of digging deep is a prolonged state of black-out, pill-induced sleep. It made me think of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale - truly disturbing in the oldest version by Basile, where Talia-the-beauty is awoken not by a kiss but after her child accidentally sucks away the splinter that had killed her (yes, having sex with a dead woman and birthing while sleeping is fairy tale material). In a way, the narrator's trauma - the sudden loss of both her unloving parents one after the other, her difficult relationship with on-and-off, older and manipulative boyfriend Trevor, as well as her aimless job in an art gallery (while she had dreamed about becoming an artist herself) - is the splinter that engenders her desire to sleep, but it is then her conscious decision to go to sleep. Sleep is thus a strange and ambiguous form of agency, but agency nonetheless - a curious case of sleep or die, a rebellious rejection of the fast-paced, high-heeled, career-oriented city wonder woman depicted in so many films and TV-series.
Sleep is also a form of self-erasure, which culminates in a final three-month sleep punctuated by brief awakenings every three days, a hibernation carefully orchestrated by the narrator and begun by getting rid of all her clothes and furniture. The unnamed girl wants to retain nothing of her former self. What is interesting is that this act of metamorphosis or healing is purely self-oriented - there is no desire to affect the world in any way, no ultimate goal or target. There is no man involved. What is also problematic is that the narrator enlists a trendy artist she despises, Ping Xi, as her jailor-janitor during her final three-month long sleep, offering in exchange her sleeping body as the subject matter of his new art project. No sex is involved, but the body of the sleeping woman is handled by the male artist until it becomes art, so much so that in the eyes of the narrator the photos are not about her anymore. Indeed, it is the very act of narrating that marks the true success of the girl's treatment, which gives her the final word about herself, her choices and her story, including the photos ("").
Before concluding, the one character that did engage my sympathy is Reva, the narrator's only friend. Reva is definitely more pivotal than it may seem at first. She is the sole catalyst for the narrator's feeble feelings of affection not devoid of cruelty - as when she sticks a picture of Reva on her fridge to remind herself how much she dislikes her. And the reason of this dislike is very clear to the unnamed girl: Reva is both a less pretty, more conformist and aspirational version of herself, as well as the one who tells her uncomfortable truths that she does not want to confront. When the narrator blames her lack of talent as the reason why she failed to become an artist, and one of the main reasons why she needs sleep, Reva perceptively asks, "Do you really need talent?" (page 16) . And later Reva outlines the narrator's pathology: "Your problem is that you're passive. You wait around for things to change, and they never will. That must be a painful way to live. Very disempowering" (page 77). Reva is the one to take away the narrator's pills, force her out of her apartment and thus concoct the strange cure that will cure her. Part of that cure is finally being able to tell Reva that she too loves her.
What I am not sure satisfied me is the ending, and here Reva is again key. The last chapter situates the novel in 2001, precisely September. The narrator watches a woman jump out of the Twin Towers, and imagines it is Reva. She admires the beauty of the woman because she is a symbol of her own awakening. Once again, the novel refuses to deal with political or even social consequences of an event as traumatic as 9/11, and it is precisely in this refusal that lies its appeal as well as its ambiguity. Are we to despise or pity the privileged narrator, who manages to aestheticise collective trauma and personal loss? Is she a despicable human being, and are we too for choosing to read her story? Or is she onto something, staying true to her non-PC feelings? These are some of the questions that have haunted me ever since finishing the novel, and the only banal conclusion I am certain of is that asking them matters, even if the answers remain uncertain, because that's the effect good literature produces. If I had to look for some sort of morale to the narrator's tale, though, I would say that prolonged sleep is her antidote to the emptiness bread by pain and nurtured by beauty and wealth, and her story an unlikely ode to wakefulness.