Ottessa Moshfegh has burst upon the literary scene mostly in the past 18 months, with, first, a book of short stories, and, now, her novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”, although she’s written two other novels of which I was unaware. Brought to my attention by my reading friend Kevin Ott, who also recommended the splendid novel “Reservoir 13” to me, “My Year…” is one of 2018’s finest novels and reveals a talent for writing unusually fine by any standards. As a book underliner (I buy books, rather than reading them on a kindle), this novel is truly full of aphorisms; the writer has a brilliance and urbanity, sophistication and , really, wisdom , that boggles my mind. She appears to have some Joan Didion in her style, and higher praise than that I cannot offer any writer.
Cynical and astute, Moshfegh’s narrator is a well-healed young woman, whose parents are both dead; she’s working in a New York trendy art gallery, a job she gets simply by knowing how to dress for the interview, and understanding the image she’s to project (unfriendly; jaded; unhelpful; rude). She’s inherited money from her parents so doesn’t need the job financially. And she takes long naps during her lunch break, exhausted from doing virtually nothing in the gallery. Moshfegh’s riffs on the contemporary art world in New York are astute and hilarious; the art described in several shows there is cynical, pointless, shown strictly for its shock value, made partly to jolt the art press (ever willing). A Chinese-American artist appears to have murdered a variety of animals, in order to place and show them in a gallery much like one in Chelsea. Our narrator will literally leave a heap of her own feces there as she departs this tiresome job.
Our narrator decides to take a year off to rest and to sleep, to avoid life and see if it’s any better on the other end. In order to do this, she goes to a woman psychiatrist, complaining of insomnia. Said shrink thus begins to pour psychotropic medicines into her, samples, prescriptions, anything at hand; all the narrator has to do is show up from time to time (increasingly less so) and lie about her symptoms, and out pour more drugs: Moshfegh’s riffs on contemporary psychopharmacology are also brilliant, hilarious–and are written with a bite that stings. (Although the narrator tells this doctor frequently that her parents are dead, the doctor regularly asks her how her parents are…..she doesn’t listen at all to her patient and fails to see through her motive: to get drugs to put her to sleep. As the psychiatrist drifts into calling herself a “shaman”, things only worsen, and the author’s spoof of this most flawed medical field is in itself worth reading this novel.
The narrator also has one friend, from college, who visits her from time to time, as her drug-induced haze gets worse and worse. Eventually, the narrator stops leaving the apartment–she’d only been leaving to get coffee and cigarettes from a nearby bodega–but realizes that some drug(s) she’s taking are causing her to go out in the evenings, of which she has no memory (Ambien, a sleeping pill she’s taking, is known to cause this behavior). Suffice it to say that her night time ramblings become the basis of an art show, at the very gallery from which she’s been fired, and this biting satire of contemporary life in New York comes full circle. (That the narrator is in mourning for her dead parents will become clearer to the reader). She also has occasional nasty sex with a highly narcissitic, totally unlikeable man).
“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” should also be read strictly for the quality of Moshfegh’s writing itself: this is a novel of beautifully crafted sentences, perfect word choices, aphoristic ideas and pearls of wisdom. And, in many ways, our narrator remains pretty much in control of her life; she’s not really suicidal, and many readers may be surprised by the mostly happy ending. Her writing, reminded me of Joan Didion’s in its spare, minimalist prose and pithy observations. However the reader chooses to approach “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”, you’ll know one thing, for sure: you’re in the hands of a great writer, one of incredible promise and talent, someone whose skills at writing prose are as good as anyone around. This is a brilliant novel by an amazing talent.