Saturday, February 2, 2019

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

The reviews of this book are hilarious. Half of them appear to be taking this book at face value, and the other half seem to be trying to come across as if they are op-eds for The New Yorker. MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is a polarizing book, and whether you'll like it depends on how you feel about reading depressing books with unlikable characters. If you want escapism and "soft" and "gentle" reads and joy, this book is going to go down about as well as, well, a dose of infermiterol.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is set in pre-9/11/2001 New York. The heroine is young, thin, beautiful, privileged, independently wealthy - and clinically depressed. She engages in a number of toxic behaviors, dating a user, befriending another woman who has an eating disorder and with whom she engages a highly co-dependent relationship, and spending all of her free time in bed or on her couch, watching old movies while taking drugs to "hibernate" and escape the uncomfortable intensity of her own emotions.

The narrator is jaded, selfish, and emotionally dulled. The portrayal of depression here is actually quite well done. People who have never experienced depression seem to think that it makes you cry and whine all the time (and, perhaps most unforgivably, willfully self-indulgent and done with agency), but for many people, there's a numbness and a feeling of hopelessness and despair: "What's the point?" you might ask, if nothing brings you joy and contentment, and you don't have the energy to do anything but sleep and eat and exist. When you're depressed, living isn't about enjoying the small things; it's about trying to muster up the energy to do the small things when you barely have the energy to get out of bed. Even though the heroine comes off as privileged, she is unable to enjoy any of the luxuries she has; the only solace she has in life is the escapism that comes from "dreamless" sleep. So what does she do? She engages a quack psychiatrist to feed her pill habit.

The psychiatrist is probably one of the most unlikable characters in the book (although the boyfriend, Trevor, is awful, too - having sex with your drugged-out unconscious ex? Yeah, buddy, that's rape). Dr. Tuttle is a crazy cat lady who has sessions in her nightgown and gives away free pill samples like they're fun-sized candy bars and it's Halloween. Some of the NYT-wannabe set were talking about this book being an existential satire, only I'm not sure what, exactly, MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION is trying to parody. Is Moshfegh trying to go the MODEST PROPOSAL route in the vein of Johnathan Swift, suggesting that if #FirstWorldProblems sufferers want to use intoxication the way the population of Brave New World did with soma to escape from reality, then why not physically escape from reality by drugging yourself out and going into a coma-like hibernation state? The ending kind of suggests that, as if life itself is a dream and death is the awakening.

I found this book amusing and bemusing in equal parts. For most of it, I took the book at face value, as a depiction of depression that transcends class and circumstance. The heroine has a life that many would kill for - minus her dead parents - and has every opportunity in the world at her manicured fingertips, but because of her psychological state, it still isn't enough. That, I appreciated, because it's true that people can be depressed no matter how "happy" their life seems, and while depression is totally worse for people who don't have the resources or the safety net that a caring group of family and friends affords, that doesn't mean that being privileged means that you feel any less helpless.

It becomes harder to take this book at face value with the introduction of the walking malpractice suit that is Dr. Tuttle, the enabling solution she finds with avant-garde artist, Ping Xi, and the pill cocktails she takes on a daily basis that seem as though they should be causing some kind of physical harm or side-effects, especially since she mixes them with caffeine and alcohol. The human body is resilient, but not that resilient. I also disliked the ending, as I'm sure many of the people who rated this book so low did, as it feels like suicidal ideation. Here we have this character who describes their self-damaging behaviors as "saving herself," and when she witnesses death being committed with agency, she describes it as being awake; as if death was the solution to her problems all along.

MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION isn't a bad book, and both the accolades and the criticisms are well-deserved, for various reasons. I fall in the middle here, because while I liked the book and found it interesting enough to continue, I didn't really like the end goal and I'm not sure what exactly the author was trying to accomplish with her message (if anything? maybe it was just a character study or an exercise in trolling the audience, and Ottessa Moshfegh is leaning back against the giant pile of money she got as an advance for this book and laughing at us all).

If you're depressed, you should probably avoid this book, as it will be triggering. It also deals with eating disorders, pharmacological abuse, suicide, addiction, and death. I'd read more from this author, but I wouldn't reread MY YEAR OF REST AND RELAXATION. It's a pretty miserable experience, even if it has some sharply cutting observation on the foibles and hypocrisies of humankind.

3 out of 5 stars

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