• Joseph Kolb

Sleeping Off the Inevitable: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

When a friend first told me about Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2017 work – eyed on the shelf of a used bookstore – a novel about a woman spending a year of her life drugged up on sleeping pills and disconnected from everyone in her life sounded, well, interesting – but not very relatable.

Oh, how the times have changed.

I’m not trying to suggest that I’ve spent the last year of my life taking various prescription cocktails as Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator does. But for a significant portion of the spring, following the end of March, myself and many other people in the world found ourselves barricaded indoors, watching the news with nothing to do. My Year of Rest and Relaxation begins in 2000 then spans several years, and the world at large – its political, environmental, and global crises – loom in the background. Our narrator, however, would prefer to watch the same selection of movies on VHS in various orders, much in the way that she consumes pills and tries to knock herself out for as long as possible.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is an absurd riot, a round of nervous laughter, in the way that everything starts to seem like a big joke when everything and nothing is off with the world. Although these world crises don’t seem to directly affect the narrator’s decision to shut out the rest of the world and shut down, they certainly are floating in her unconscious. It's the few people who are in her life who are decidedly off-kilter, off like a pair of eyeglasses that aren’t quite your prescription.

The narrator finds her “therapist”, Dr. Tuttle, in a frantic Yellow Pages scramble. Dr. Tuttle’s office reads like a joint mortuary-psychic den. She drolly gives such sound pieces of advice as, “Drugs are so effective in curing mental illness—because they impair our judgment,” and “Daily meditation has been shown to cure insomnia in rats.” Then, she pulls out the prescription pad and her basket (!) of samples. Reva, one of the only other recurring characters and the narrator’s “best friend,” cherishes her for everything that she herself lacks. (The narrator repeatedly makes disdainful references to her own beauty, her previous gallery position, her designer clothes, etc.) Reva is always quipping things like, "Get good at knowing when you're tired … Too many women wear themselves thin these days." Meanwhile, Reva is sleeping with her boss, mixing Diet Mountain Dew with tequila in questionable ratios, hiding her bulimia, and buying knock-off bags from the street. This is all to the narrator’s total annoyance.

The narrator is fuming mad at everything and everyone – particularly Reva, who she can’t stand. For better or for worse, try as she might, she can’t get rid of Reva. She tapes a picture of Reva to the living room mirror, which makes Reva happy like a puppy. In reality, it’s to remind the narrator how much she hates her. Describing Reva’s (usually unannounced) arrivals, the narrator remarks, “I was both relieved and irritated when Reva showed up, the way you'd feel if someone interrupted you in the middle of suicide.” Reva, despite her flaws, is a decidedly sweet girl, earnest, if anything. She’s the only one in the narrator’s life who truly cares about her. And the narrator can’t stand her. At times it is difficult to say whether Moshfegh’s narrator has a cold, warped, and biting viewing of everyone around her, or that she’s the only one lucid enough, in her waking life, to dryly state things as they are. Still, she is decidedly horrible at times – she's the kind of narrator that you love to hate, that you love because you hate so much. Reva is a heap of liquor-soaked Beanie Babies and popsicle sticks, while the narrator is a pile of needles and cigarette butts, red-lipstick filter stains and all. You get the idea. Like watching a car crash, their straining relationship is unavoidable. Like one flake of peeling paint inspires someone to start picking away at the rest, as their friendship reaches its limits, the dirty interior of the narrator’s life is revealed.

Our narrator has it all – or had it all – or “had” “it” all. You know? We learn her money came from the death of both of her parents. And neither of her parents were particularly loving, quite cold actually. The gallery only kept her around as eye candy, and the one man in her life constantly leaves her out in the colder for older, more “mature” women – despite his own shortcomings (read: egoism). Moshfegh’s protagonist begins to desperately – in her cool, nonchalant way, of course – believe eventually that, by taking her year off, her year of rest and relaxation, she will come out better, things will become better, and she can move on. “Initially,” she says, “I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.” Of course, rest and relaxation turn into a series of benders and binges, ordering take-out and new clothes, nights that – despite photo documentation – she can’t remember. None of it can she remember. Sound familiar yet?

I won’t project onto you, but personally, I found the months slipping away into a haze, the days melting by while I rode along for the ride. So much easier to sleep it all off, right? Easier said than done. Life continues to march along, good or bad, as the narrator comes to discover by the novel’s end. She – and each of us – must discover what there is worth living for, as the pains (and joys!) of modern life are inescapable. For this narrator, it is life – that day-to-day truth of our lives, beyond the surface, that saves her.

©2020 by Joseph R. Kolb