“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh is a compelling and darkly humorous novel that delves into the life of a young woman seeking an unconventional escape from the mundanity and dissatisfaction of her seemingly perfect life.
Set in Manhattan at the turn of the millennium, the story introduces us to a protagonist who is the epitome of societal success: she’s young, beautiful, wealthy, and well-educated. However, beneath this veneer of privilege lies a profound sense of unhappiness and disconnection.
In the heart of Manhattan, 2000, a young woman, anonymous yet vividly present, navigates a life steeped in privilege.
But beneath this glossy surface lies a profound unhappiness.
At 26, she is devoid of ambition, steeped in cynicism, and finds no joy in living.
Her solution to this existential ennui?
An audacious plan – to sleep away an entire year.
Far from suicidal, she seeks refuge in unconsciousness, finding existence too burdensome. She envisions this year of hibernation as a transformative cocoon, from which she’ll emerge renewed and revitalized.
Soon,her ambitious project finds an unlikely ally in Dr. Tuttle, a psychiatrist whose approach to medicine is as eccentric as it is unscrupulous.
Armed with a potent cocktail of anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, and hypnotics, the narrator begins her journey into near-constant slumber, having deceived Dr. Tuttle with tales of insomnia and wild dreams.
The narrator’s retreat into sleep is punctuated by the presence of Reva, her college friend.
Reva’s struggles to fit into upper-class Manhattan and her obsessive concern with appearance and social status contrast starkly with the narrator’s disengagement.
The narrator’s waking hours are few, often spent in movie marathons or ruminating over her loveless upbringing and her emotionally distant relationship with Trevor, her ex-boyfriend.
A fictional drug, Infermiterol, becomes central to her plan, inducing extended blackouts with unsettling psychotropic side effects. Unbeknownst to her, during these blackouts, she lives a life starkly different from her reclusive reality.
Halfway through her endeavor, the narrator faces a crisis – a struggle to sleep and Reva’s theft of her pills. A fortuitous lock-in at Reva’s place sparks a new phase of her plan: total isolation in her apartment, aided by Infermiterol and the assistance of Ping Xi, an artist from her gallery days.
She agrees to become the subject of his art project in exchange for his help.
When her year-long retreat concludes, she steps out feeling reborn, shedding her cynicism and misanthropy, eager to embrace the world anew.
However, the novel culminates in a stark, haunting moment.
On September 11, 2001, as the narrator purchases a VCR to record the unfolding tragedy, she witnesses, through the news footage, a scene that shakes her newfound hope – a woman, possibly Reva, leaping from the North Tower.
This tragic vision lingers with her, a poignant reminder of beauty and bravery amidst devastation.
The protagonist of the novel, whose name remains undisclosed, is a 26-year-old woman living in Manhattan. Despite her apparent advantages – beauty, wealth, an art history degree from Columbia, and a considerable inheritance – she is deeply unhappy and cynical.
Disillusioned with life, she embarks on a year-long project to sleep continuously, using a variety of prescription drugs, in the hopes of emerging transformed.
Dr. Tuttle is a psychiatrist who plays a pivotal role in the narrator’s plan. Eccentric and ethically questionable, she prescribes a vast array of powerful medications to the narrator, who deceives her with fabricated stories of insomnia and disturbing dreams.
Dr. Tuttle’s recklessness and lack of medical scruples facilitate the narrator’s extended hibernation.
Reva is the narrator’s friend from college, who regularly visits her during her year of hibernation.
Unlike the narrator, Reva lacks the privilege of old money and is deeply concerned with fitting into the upper echelons of corporate Manhattan.
She is characterized by her obsession with social status, her struggle with disordered eating, and her penchant for knock-off designer goods. Despite the narrator’s often dismissive attitude towards her, Reva shows genuine concern for her wellbeing.
Trevor is the narrator’s ex-boyfriend, representing another aspect of her unfulfilling past.
Their relationship is toxic, characterized by emotional distance and apathy. The narrator’s reflections on her interactions with Trevor contribute to her desire to escape her current reality.
Ping Xi is an artist acquainted with the narrator through her gallery job. He becomes an instrumental figure in the latter part of her year-long sleep project. The narrator enlists his help to ensure she remains locked in her apartment and supplied with necessities.
In exchange, Ping Xi is allowed to document her hibernation as part of his art project, showcasing a blend of art and life in a peculiar arrangement.
1. The Illusion of Privilege and the Quest for Meaning
The book delves deeply into the paradox of privilege.
The novel’s protagonist, despite her outwardly perfect life marked by beauty, wealth, and education, grapples with an inner void. This juxtaposition challenges the conventional belief that happiness is a byproduct of societal advantages.
Moshfegh meticulously explores how privilege can become a gilded cage, leading to a sense of detachment and a desperate search for meaning.
The narrative underscores that material wealth and social status are not panaceas for existential angst, instead often masking deeper emotional and psychological needs.
2. The Nature of Escape and Self-Transformation
Moshfegh’s novel is a profound study of escapism and the human desire for transformation.
The protagonist’s year-long sleep, intended as a form of hibernation, symbolizes a retreat from the harsh realities of life and a journey towards self-renewal. This theme is intricately woven through her reliance on prescription drugs, symbolizing society’s increasing dependence on artificial means to cope with discontent.
The novel questions the effectiveness of such escapism and examines whether true transformation is achievable through detachment from reality.
It also reflects on the complexities of self-imposed isolation as a means of dealing with trauma and dissatisfaction, and the uncertain outcomes of such extreme methods of self-discovery.
3. The Complexity of Human Relationships and Loneliness
At its core, the book is a poignant exploration of human relationships and the deep-seated loneliness that can pervade even the most seemingly connected lives.
The protagonist’s interactions with her friend Reva, her ex-boyfriend Trevor, and even Dr. Tuttle, are marked by a profound sense of disconnection and emotional dissonance.
Moshfegh masterfully portrays how these relationships, rather than providing comfort, often exacerbate the narrator’s sense of isolation. The novel delves into the dynamics of dependency, the superficiality of societal connections, and the paradox of feeling alone in a crowded city.
It prompts a reflection on the nature of human connection and the often invisible barriers that prevent genuine understanding and empathy.
Moshfegh masterfully portrays a character’s extreme method of self-transformation and introspection, set against the backdrop of a superficial and materialistic society.
The novel’s ending, coinciding with the 9/11 attacks, serves as a powerful and sobering reminder of the unpredictability of life and the deep, often hidden struggles of individuals.