A Sleeping Beauty Hopes Hibernation Is the Answer to All Life’s Problems

The unnamed heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” is a kind of brand ambassador for ennui. She is “tall and thin and blond and pretty and young” (her own words) and dislikes nearly everyone and everything, as if she has rolled a condom onto her heart.

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Dwight Garner
, New York Times

The unnamed heroine of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” is a kind of brand ambassador for ennui. She is “tall and thin and blond and pretty and young” (her own words) and dislikes nearly everyone and everything, as if she has rolled a condom onto her heart.

She is wealthy and fit and well-educated and chic and, to quote George Orwell on Salvador Dalí, as anti-social as a flea. Blankness is her factory setting. A sybil without a prophecy, a bat with disabled echolocation, she can resemble a female version of Patrick Bateman, the soulless antihero of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel “American Psycho.” (Her addiction to Whoopi Goldberg movies parallels Bateman’s dependence upon Huey Lewis and the News.) I kept waiting for her to grab an ax and start splitting heads.

Because this is a novel by the superabundantly talented Moshfegh — she is an American writer of Croatian and Iranian descent — we know in advance that it will be cool, strange, aloof and disciplined. The sentences will be snipped as if the writer has an extra row of teeth.

Moshfegh’s last book, a collection of stories titled “Homesick for Another World” (2017), solidified her position as a startling new voice in American fiction. That volume, dense with misfits and often comically poisonous thoughts that act as coagulants, read as if the author were playing many games of blitz chess at once. Before that Moshfegh published a novella, “McGlue” (2014), and a novel, “Eileen” (2015).

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is about what happens when Moshfegh’s 24-year-old narrator becomes intentionally addicted to antidepressants and other meds and, more centrally, to the sleep that results. Like Oblomov in the Russian novel, she does not want to be awake much. She begins to wonder, as do freelance writers and blue-state voters: Why climb out of bed at all?

The world is hell, Bill Clinton’s presidency is in its squalid final months (this novel is set in 2000 and 2001) and she feels like a twice-dunked cruller. Best to remain narcotized and between the Zen warp and weft of high thread-count sheets.

She finds a psychoanalyst in the phone book, one that dispenses medications as if they were beads on Fat Tuesday. This book should come with a copy of the Physicians’ Desk Reference to enable the reader to sort them out.

Moshfegh is an inspired literary witch doctor. She invents many of the drugs her heroine ingests, the way Don DeLillo invented Dylar, to placate the fear of death, in “White Noise.” These have serio-comic names like Valdignore and Prognosticrone and Maxiphenphen and Silencior.

There was a joke at Rolling Stone magazine that if the drugs ran out at a party, one could find Hunter S. Thompson and suck on him. Depressives without prescriptions could lick Moshfegh’s heroine’s elbow.

The narrator begins to sleep most of the day and sometimes to go on walkabouts while blacked out. She wakes to find that she has gone to clubs or had her pubic hair waxed or rearranged her furniture. Once she comes to on the Long Island Rail Road, a waking nightmare for sure.

She decides her life would be better if she slept all the time. A practiced lotus-eater, she finds the drug that will help her realize this ambition. It is called Infermiterol. On it she dozes for three days at a time. She decides to take 40 of them, sequentially, in order to sleep for four months. A downtown artist will bring her food and film her for a pretentious project.

Moshfegh, happily, is not overly interested in her narrator’s back story, in the pain (or absence of it) that has driven her to become a voidoid. Her parents died (cancer, overdose) while she was in college, but she was not close to either of them.

Her narrator has a friend, Reva, whom she treats abysmally, and an ex-boyfriend, Trevor, with whom she is still in touch. Reva worries about her friend’s torpidity, at the way she is self-eaten, like a consumptive. She tells her she is “squandering” her bikini body.

The narrator’s motives are not suicidal. “My hibernation was self-preservational,” she says. “I thought that it was going to save my life.” About her sleep, she declares: “If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was the dream.”

If she is on downers, the prose in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is mostly on uppers. Like its narrator, this is a remorseless little machine. Moshfegh’s sentences are piercing and vixenish, each one a kind of orphan. She plays interestingly with substance and illusion, with dread and solace on the installment plan. This book builds subtly toward the events of Sept. 11.

Yet it is a curiously one-note performance. This is a strong book but one that does not advance our sense of Moshfegh as a writer. Her sensibility, you feel, is like a jewel that has yet to find its most advantageous setting. One never quite feels anything is at stake.

Moshfegh writes with so much misanthropic aplomb, however, that she is always a deep pleasure to read. She has a sleepless eye and dispenses observations as if from a toxic eyedropper: “Caffeine was my exercise”; “Rejection, I have found, can be the only antidote to delusion.”

About the actress Julie Delpy in “Before Sunrise,” Reva, who is obsessed with appearances, says, “No way they’d cast her in this role if she were American. See how soft her arms are? Nobody here tolerates arm flab. Arm flab is a killer. It’s like the SAT’s. You don’t even exist if you’re below 1400.”

The narrator asks, “Does it make you happy that Julie Delpy has arm flab?” Reva replies: “Happiness is not what I’d call it. More like satisfaction.”

Though this novel is set nearly 20 years ago, it feels current. The thought of sleeping through this particular moment in the world’s history has appeal. The advertisement suggests itself: “Infermiterol: For when you don’t want to get up until it’s over.”

Publication Notes:

‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’

By Ottessa Moshfegh

288 pages. Penguin Press. $26.

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