The narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,’’ seems to share little with the misfits and miscreants who typically populate this author’s fiction.
The wholly characteristic titular character of the Man Booker finalist “Eileen,’’ for instance, is a plain-looking 24-year-old with pitted skin who lives in a filthy, cluttered house with her alcoholic father and works in a correctional facility. In contrast, the new book’s “heroine” is “thin and blond and pretty,” has a degree from Columbia University, and “an amazing wardrobe.” In her mid-20s, she already owns her Upper East Side apartment outright and seems to have unlimited funds.
Soon enough, however, the kinship becomes clear. Our unnamed narrator’s childhood was emotionally deprived and painfully lonely. Her father was remote and ineffectual. Her mother, unstable, manipulative, and troubled, drugged her baby bottles with Valium to stop her from crying; the best times they had together were spent sleeping. In her junior year of college, her father died of cancer; six weeks later, her mother overdosed on pills and alcohol.
Having recently lost both her cruel-and-callow banker boyfriend and her cushy-yet-vapid job at an art gallery, the narrator makes the decision to “hibernate” in her apartment. She spends her rare awake time watching movies (her improbable heroine is Whoopi Goldberg), occasionally shuffling out to the Egyptian bodega for supplies or to the local Rite Aid for pills. In a striking echo of Moshfegh’s words about herself in a recent interview — “I’m not comfortable with life on Earth . . . [it] feels really harsh and painful . . . like torture a lot of the time” — the narrator describes going outside as “always a painful passage . . . like a baby being born — the air hurt, the light hurt, the details of the world seemed garish and hostile.”
Determined to narcotize her pain and drug herself into oblivion, the narrator finds a psychiatrist in the phone book. Dr. Tuttle, a brilliant comic creation, dispenses unhinged bromides and a raft of prescriptions with shocking yet welcome alacrity. Of course she provides “terrible advice,” but the more important point is that our heroine feels she’s discovered a “pharmaceutical shaman, a magus, a sorcerer, a sage” who allows her to accumulate “an impressive library of psychopharmaceuticals.” There’s an over-the-top quality to this teetering mountain of pills, but, here as elsewhere, reality-based qualifications (what about mixing medications?) would slow our surrender to the absurdist world Moshfegh so deftly creates as her heroine sinks into optimistic somnolence:
“I knew in my heart — this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then — that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person.”
Like the loners, addicts, and freaks who inhabit the pages of Moshfegh’s recent story collection, “Homesick For Another World,’’ our narrator dreams of escape, renewal, “the chance for a new and better life.”
Her chipper college friend, Riva, is the only one who dares puncture her bubble. Spouting self-help platitudes, whining about her romantic travails (she’s having a hopeless affair with her married boss), Riva chastises the narrator for throwing away her life, but her own frenzied pursuit of perfection — she is bulimic and “a slave to vanity and status . . . obsessed with brand names, conformity, ‘fitting in’ ” — is ultimately as unproductive and woebegone as the narrator’s lethargy.
Like Thoreau at Walden Pond or Bartleby preferring “not to,” Moshfegh’s narrator is in flight from a world that has been too much with her. She mercilessly exposes the falseness of our representations, where identity is curated, where we all “lied . . . to each other about our happy lives,” cast in roles we didn’t solicit. Disgusted by the insufferable pretentiousness of downtown or Brooklyn hipsters and the competitive vanity of Upper East Side moms, repelled by the “beauty pageants and cockfights of the art scene,” she attempts to shed both the accouterments and the values of her consumerist, appearance-obsessed culture (although her shopping sprees during black-outs indicate that her reformation hasn’t yet been entirely successful).
With her disastrously bad decisions, her lack of any conventional ambition, her misanthropy, our “somnophile” narrator will be off-putting for many readers. But her bracing self-awareness, mordant humor, and flashes of vulnerability endear her to us. She’s appalling, hilarious, and, finally, wise. A profoundly idiosyncratic heroine becomes a universal figure of alienation, an archetypal quester in search of “a great transformation.”
Moshfegh’s work has always been graphic and gross, but here the gross-outs are less frequent, less gratuitous, and less gross. There’s less of the ostentatious weirdness that marred the short story collection. Set between June 2000 and the fall of 2001 and narrated at a distance of some years from its unfolding, the novel is haunted by the spectre of 9/11, its self-centered satiric bite counterbalanced by a wider, rounder elegiac tone. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation’’ is the most poignant, vulnerable, mature, and — dare I say it? — sincere work that its gifted author has yet produced.
MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press, 289 pp., $26Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’