The unnamed narrator in Ottessa Moshfegh’s fourth book, the novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Penguin Press, July), is unhappy despite her privilege: her parents have died, and her inheritance pays for her Upper East Side apartment and allows her to quit her job at an art gallery. Her plan is to “hibernate”: to sleep her life away with the help of psychiatric drugs prescribed by an eccentric and inept psychiatrist named Dr. Tuttle. When she does leave her apartment, it’s to pick up her prescriptions at a nearby pharmacy or buy acidic coffee from a local bodega, sometimes while she’s blacked out.
“Her life is pretty empty,” Moshfegh says. “She doesn’t feel that she has any love in her life or really any meaning. All she has is what she consumes, especially because she’s hibernating. Even before she technically starts to hibernate, she’s emotionally hibernating; she’s not getting fed by any of her life experiences. Her job at the gallery just feeds her disgust and her resentment, basically. And her response is to find freedom in unconsciousness.”
The emptiness of consumption is a theme in the book. The narrator’s best friend, Reva, is “a slave to vanity and status,” and their friendship is mostly one-sided, although the narrator appreciates Reva’s loyalty. “I think she enjoyed being recognized by my doorman, taking the fancy elevator with the gold buttons, watching me squander my luxuries,” the narrator says.
Her occasional boyfriend, Trevor, works at a bank in the World Trade Center and is the kind of guy who “always smelled like a department store” and doesn’t seem to care for anyone but himself. Nothing in the narrator’s life fulfills her, except for sleep.
Moshfegh has made a name for herself as a writer who doesn’t shy away from expressing the absurdity of existence. “It’s kind of a life raft, really,” she says, speaking of absurdity as a theme in her work. “For me, it means a lot of things. It means humor—a kind of gallows humor sometimes, sometimes in the face of seriousness. It’s absurdity with meaning, not just absurdity for absurdity’s sake. And I think it’s a part of my personality.”
Moshfegh is also the author of a novella, “McGlue” (Fence, 2014); the novel Eileen (Penguin Press, 2015); and the story collection Homesick for Another World (Penguin Press, 2017). The idea for My Year of Rest and Relaxation came to her while she was staying with a close friend on the Upper East Side and noticed how little there was to do there: “The character grew out of observing who goes to the bodega for bad coffee; the contrast between the opulence and wealth of that neighborhood and the terrible coffee that the bellman and the housemaids drink,” Moshfegh says. “Something that really struck me about the culture of that neighborhood was that there were the rich people who lived there, and then there were all their servants.”
Moshfegh comments that “in the last 120 years or so, American culture has shifted dramatically into a middle-class culture; mainstream is now middle class.” She adds, “So what is different is wealthy; what is exotic and interesting and what we celebrate is wealth and all that comes with it. We can see that in the way we celebrate celebrities and now even our politicians. The aspirationalism of America has become not just to make it but to be an elitist. So looking at the culture and these people who work for the wealthy and feeling like an outsider from that world—I mean, I was just a visitor... I think that’s the way I related to the narrator. She feels like an outsider too, but she’s also wearing a mask. She’s trying to pass. Her genetics and her physical appearance get her a certain amount of prestige in the neighborhood.”
Moshfegh decided to set the novel in the months leading up to 9/11 because she says that it would mean something vastly different to set the book in the moment in which we’re currently living. “I began to see the book as a way of describing how we all got hijacked by that experience,” she says. “It shifted consciousness in a huge way, and not in the way that I feel mainstream society believes it did. It wasn’t just heartbreak; there was a lot of manipulation. There is this really real tragedy, and then there is just a whole shit-ton of delusion to try to deal with it. But the way that mass consciousness works, we see images and in our vulnerability of being in shock and horror, we internalize a story that makes us feel better. It’s much easier to think that the villain is off in some distant land and all we need to do is build a fucking wall and get machine guns on the garrets. Actually, it’s much harder to live with the reality that we are the evil too, and we are allowing it every day. So that was on my mind, big time.”
Moshfegh lived on the Upper West Side during 9/11 and was a senior at Barnard at the time. She stayed in New York for another eight years and watched it change from the city she knew in the ’90s to what she now describes as “a corporate shopping mall.”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation came out of a desire to write about life pre–social media, before people broadcast their personal lives on the internet. One of the reasons Moshfegh decided to keep the main character in her new novel unnamed is because of her first novel, Eileen. “So much of that book was about Eileen’s name, all the sonorous connotations that her name had,” she says. “So it became obvious to me, having written that book, that a name does a lot to a character, and it also makes that character so much more distinct from the reader, so it felt right to keep this protagonist unnamed. It seemed more seamlessly possible that we could enter her consciousness that way.”
And that’s important, since so much of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is about the narrator’s consciousness, and what she does when she’s unconscious. There’s darkness as an undercurrent, but there’s humor as well, typical of all of Moshfegh’s work. When the narrator isn’t knocked out by drugs, she watches movies, and her hero is Whoopi Goldberg.
“That part of the narrator’s experience is totally autobiographical,” Moshfegh says. “Holding Whoopi Goldberg as this hero who represents the absurdity and self-seriousness in art and self-presentation. There isn’t any context where I can put Whoopi Goldberg where I’m not reminded of my humanity in the most absurd way. She’s so unpretentious. She is not a stoic figure. I can imagine Whoopi Goldberg’s tarot card, like the meaning of her, and it’s something like: she exists to remind us not to take ourselves so seriously, even in the most mundane ways.”
Michele Filgate is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and a contributing editor at Literary Hub.