Last week my barista asked what I was reading, and I told her I was reading a novel by Ottessa Moshfegh called My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
"Sounds privileged," the barista said, looking at me like I was wearing Melania's green jacket.
My reply—a quick summary of the book—didn't do me any favors. "It's about a beautiful young woman with a large inheritance who locks herself up in her well-appointed NYC apartment for a year and takes a bunch of prescription pills in an attempt to sleep away her emotional problems," I said, as I signed for my coffee.
The barista rolled her eyes, said she'd be sure to check it out, and dismissed me before I could tell her how Moshfegh hides a dimly glowing ball of genuine humanitarianism beneath a thick crust of black humor and Grade-A cynicism—enough genuine humanitarianism that maybe even a moralizing barista would like it.
Moshfegh's ironic title might turn off Seattleites who don't want to read anything that isn't a protest sign. And even if they do deign to read the first hundred pages, their rolled eyes might stay rolled.
The story's told from the perspective of a laconic, depressed white woman in the middle of an existential crisis. When she's not tearing down her friend Reva (who works on Wall Street), skewering the world of contemporary visual art, or lying to her drug dealer/psychiatrist, she's leveraging every ounce of her privilege to "hibernate" for a year, a selfish and absurd goal she knows is selfish and absurd. Even if you didn't care to read a book from the perspective of such a character, you'd be forgiven for skipping yet another fucking novel about the particular charms and indignities of living in Manhattan, no matter how much it critiques the genre.
But you'd also miss out on a lot of extremely good writing, some of the funniest dialogue I've read in a while, descriptions of characters so brutal and accurate they're actually loving. And, of course, you'd be missing the whole point of the book—or one of them, at least.
You're supposed to dislike the normie characters and the trust fund hipster at the center of the story. Then you're supposed to realize, along with the narrator, that even normies and trust fund hipsters possess rich emotional interiors, that you are, in some ways, deep down, or even right on top, a normie and/or a trust fund hipster, and that your neuroses and your obsession with our own reflection in the pond prevent you from seeing yourself in others, which is the root of your cruelty.
You're also supposed to laugh a lot about the narrator's fixations (Whoopi Goldberg, terrible mass market movies, bodega food), admire her general lazy brazenness, and nod your head at her excellent implied critiques of consumerism. And I think you're supposed to ultimately see her attempt to void herself from the universe as a metaphor for the level of selflessness required to deal with the unknown without freaking out about it.
The book's cynical pleasures begin to feel tiresome about 1/3 of the way in, but right when they do Moshfegh makes you very aware of the particular year the narrator has chosen to sleep through. It's late 2000. And then, if you're an idiot like me and didn't see this coming until 1/3 through, you think, “Oh my god 9/11 is going to happen in this book."
This realization introduces a tension that keeps you reading, if only to figure out how the catastrophe figures in the story. Will the narrator's sleeping beauty routine save her from her self-imposed imprisonment, or does someone so steeped in her own grief and privilege need something as serious as a terrorist attack to wake her up?
I'm not 100 percent sure Moshfegh sticks the landing. If it were a short story, I think she would have. The book is 280 pages of hilariously mean, misanthropic language and then maybe 5 pages of the opposite of that. If it were 20 pages of the former and the same number of pages as the latter, I think she'd have said all she said and just as powerfully. That said, I really enjoyed reading those 280 pages. So, forget the landing. Embrace the routine.