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‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’: A dark comedy about a desolate life

In hibernation: Pablo Picasso’s oil ‘Sleeping woman with closed shutters’

In hibernation: Pablo Picasso’s oil ‘Sleeping woman with closed shutters’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

This funny book about a bleak life is not quite satisfying, judged by Moshfegh’s own standards

In June 2000, the unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel starts “hibernating”. She is 24 years old, a WASP and a Columbia graduate. She is “pretty, thin and blonde”; she often tells us that she “looks like a model” (sometimes supermodel), and a friend likens her to Kate Moss. She used to work at a high-end art gallery, but has given up that job and rented an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with her inherited wealth.

This is not a protagonist to whom most readers will readily grant sympathy, or indeed interest. That interest is secured, at the outset, by the novel’s bizarre — and ingenious — conceit. The “hibernation” is literal. Our narrator decides to spend an entire year asleep — the titular year of rest and relaxation. We meet her first with her hibernation well under way, and are rapidly familiarised with its rhythms and physical textures.

Sleeping, talking

This set-up poses, irresistibly, the question: how will she pull it off? Both in terms of how the narrator is actually going to live like this for a year, and how is Moshfegh going to make it work as a novel? How do you write a novel about a narrator who is always asleep?

Moshfegh’s use of the past tense is crucial here. Many writers, confronting such material, would be drawn to the present tense, so popular in contemporary fiction. But by telling the story from a future point at which is she is, presumably, no longer hibernating, she can give shape to her narrative, as well as move freely back in time to the circumstances that led her to hibernate.

The more we learn about the narrator, and the more time we spend in her company, the more she grows as an object of both sympathy and interest, and her voice drives the novel as much as the conceit. As an undergraduate, she lost both her parents within months of each other — her father to cancer, and her mother to a suicidal combination of alcohol and sedatives. They were both, to put it mildly, inadequate parents; and Moshfegh conveys with moving subtlety both the trauma of bereavement, and the particular pathos of the narrator’s longing for parental love that wasn’t forthcoming even in life.

Dysfunctional relationships

Before and after her bereavement, she has been in a toxic on-off relationship with Trevor, a much older man. He is almost sadistically manipulative, in ways she is always aware of: a breakup with Trevor helps prompt her decision to hibernate. The only enduring relationship in her life is with her former college roommate Reva. While less damaging than her relationships with her parents and Trevor, the friendship is marked by the narrator’s persistent and casual cruelty to Reva, and the latter’s undisguised jealousy.

The narrator regards the gallery she works at with cynicism that hardens into revulsion. Moshfegh has described My Year of Rest and Relaxation as a comedy; but, like its predecessor, Eileen, it is a funny book about a bleak life. If you had these parents and this ex-boyfriend and this lone friend, why wouldn’t you want to escape it all? In this context, hibernation isn’t an alternative to life: it’s an alternative to suicide (an instinct the narrator never explicitly feels).

The comedy itself works on two levels. The first is satire: the novel has merciless fun at the expense of late-90s’ contemporary art (think Damien Hirst), the American attitude to mental health, the culture of self-help. The other is in the narrative voice, with its heightened perception of the flaws and neuroses of the people around her.

Accumulation of detail

By page 150 or so, Moshfegh has brushed off any scepticism about the conceit of hibernation. As in all her fiction, she makes it work through the accumulation of detail — in particular by her descriptions of the pills the narrator takes to achieve her state, and their sometimes terrifying effects.

But judged as a novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is, by Moshfegh’s formidably high standards, not quite satisfying, certainly not as fully achieved as Eileen. In part, this may be an unavoidable consequence of its subject. That the action and conversations are repetitive may be the point of the whole thing, but repetition is a strategy with diminishing returns. Some of the comedy is too on-the-nose, such as the narrator’s sessions with Dr. Tuttle, her parodically awful psychiatrist. Moshfegh has been justly acclaimed for her graphic attention to bodily functions, but this material is starting to strain from overuse.

The past-tense narration sets up the expectation that the narrator will eventually stop hibernating. It is implied that the process will involve 9/11 (Trevor and Reva both work in the Twin Towers). The way that Moshfegh delivers this, in the book’s final act, will divide readers. To me the ending is a cop-out, unworthy of the novelistic intelligence behind it, perhaps even proof that for all the brilliance of the idea and its execution, Moshfegh did not quite know how to make a novel of it.

These concerns only arise because we are dealing with one of the brightest talents in contemporary American fiction, and surely the most original. With each book Moshfegh does something new, and her work as a whole is a glorious affirmation of the novel as a branch of imaginative literature, when the dominant modes are essayistic and autobiographical. Each book leaves us wondering: what will she do next?

The writer is based in Delhi.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation; Ottessa Moshfegh, Jonathan Cape, ₹599

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 1:44:08 AM |

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