One book that had me in a chokehold this year was My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (her name alone is engrossing).
Though we are told to judge a book not by its cover, from first glance My Year is overplayed; one of too many artsy modern book covers with a traditional painting of a forlorn looking Junoesque female, head demurely turned to one side in contemplation. The title is scrawled above her, glowing in brusque neon; I can just hear Miranda Priestly saying ‘groundbreaking’.
Image credit: Andrew Casey
However, do not be fooled. Moshfegh paints a portrait of a nameless narrator who possesses everything: beauty, wealth, intelligence, yet her mind turns with cynicism, callousness, and indolence; she is hollow. Numb from past tragedy, she intends to cocoon herself in a chemically induced hibernation for a year: “Neuroproxin, Maxiphenphen, Valdignore, Silencior, Seconol, Nembutal, Valium, Librium, Placydil, Noctec, Miltown”, as she lists off an arsenal of pharmacological panaceas (most of which are fake). She will fill this emptiness with a blissful sleep, in hope that she will wake “renewed and reborn”.
(Sidebar: In an age obsessed with wellness, it’s ironically refreshing to see an author make near mockery of this movement - devising a character with such a twisted self-care plan, if you could call it that…)
Aside from the twisted premise, it is additionally jarring because of the fact that it is incredibly funny; a running gag through the novel is how the narrator looks up to “Whoopi Goldberg” whom she claims is her idol.
Interestingly, the book takes place pre-9/11. Media that tries to capture the scope of world-rippling catastrophic events can be strange (yes I am thinking of that one Robert Pattinson film) but this period throws an entirely new light to the novel, contextualising the tragedy of the narrator’s inner life as well as her outer one.
Reading it in the midst of a pandemic adds an entirely new layer to the book. After spending the better part of nearly 2 years inside, the narrator’s philosophy is one that is not so unrelatable; sleeping to blunt the intolerability of facing the world, slipping into a temporary dreamless, endless state of absence.
However, the catastrophe serves to almost frame the story and imbues it with a kind of hopeless optimism when the narrator seems to be ‘awakened’ by the chaos at the end; newly embalmed with regard for living. She is nameless until the end, eyes wide open, embracing the world in all its abundance, the least any of us can do.
I do love the last line:
“There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake”
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor