Like a hummingbird hovering in cold weather during a self-induced torpor, the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a 20-something Ivy League, orphaned cutie, intentionally hibernates for one year in a drug-induced “sleep diet,” hoping her soul wounds heal and trusting that the world will be a better place when she awakens. First-time Ottessa Moshfegh readers will marvel at her ability to write such a saturnine story in such a droll manner. Her witty lines entertain throughout her fourth book: “I ate some melatonin and Benadryl and drooled a little,” the narrator states. “Night was falling. I felt tired, heavy, but not exactly sleepy. So I took another Nembutal, watched Presumed Innocent, then took a few Lunestas.” At this point, the reader’s own GABA receptors and endorphins are cross-firing along with the pill-popping narrator’s.
The action occurs in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where the narrator, a gallery assistant, bought an apartment with her inheritance. Moshfegh accurately writes about the not-so-mean streets of the neighborhood—its bodegas and its proprietors (“the Egyptians”), the vacuous, spandex-wearing, Botox-injected married women, and her bulimic friend Reva. She then takes the reader downtown to the best schvitz in town, art galleries, and to weekly visits with her quack therapist Dr. Tuttle (rhymes with muddle) who has her own theory about psychotropic drug side effects: “You must have a callus on your cortex … not figuratively. Not literally, I mean. I am saying, parenthetically.” And she said this “clucking her tongue” displaying “air” parenthesis.
The narrative continues to help the reader enter deeper and deeper into the mind of an addict whose proclivity for imbibing drugs started with the death of her father, a professor, and being molested by one of his colleagues at his funeral. We also learn of her mother’s addiction and untimely end. These events make dealing with death impossible for her:
My mom died, Reva said during a commercial break. Shit I said. The ghoulish voice of the TV show’s male narrator and Reva’s sniffles and sighs should have lulled me to sleep. But I could not sleep. I closed my eyes. When the next episode, about crop circles, started, Reva poked me. Are you awake? I pretended I wasn’t.
In another pathetic scene, Reva purloins the narrator’s passel of drugs, and Moshfegh masterfully describes the narrator’s hunt to steal them back: “A Victoria’s Secret gift bag was tucked into the back corner of the cabinet. Inside, glory! My Ambien, my Rozerem, may Ativan, my Xanax, my trazadone, my lithium. Seroquel, Lunesta. Valium. I laughed. I teared up.” In an instant, the jonesing narrator is back in business.
Moshfegh’s flawless depiction of life lost in a continuous drug haze continues to shock throughout the book. The protagonist, zoned out, binge watches reruns of Whoopi Goldberg and Harrison Ford movies (her faves), occasionally toggling to a porn channel to indulge herself, leading to her signing up for a dating site (her screen name Whoopigirlberg2000). The problem with her association with the site is that, while stoned out of her mind, she sends pictures of her private parts and the inside of her mouth informing chat room participants to tie her up and hold her hostage. Moshfegh takes the reader down a rabbit hole of confusion for a year, leaving the reader to ponder: What is the true meaning of life? Is life precious enough for the narrator to survive her self-prescribed sleep diet, or will she end up in a body bag at Bellevue?
Ottessa Moshfegh creates her own milieu, a New York City acid test replete with ribald passages, unapologetic dialogue, and a plot structure only she can devise. Moshfegh is not afraid of anything, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation is one of the year’s best books.