Daring New Novel Fetishizes A Desperate Desire For Sleep

Jul 10, 2018
Originally published on July 13, 2018 10:32 am

Over the years I've called many a novel a snoozer, but this is the first time I'm using that term in tribute. Ottessa Moshfegh's new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a real snoozer, a daring and accomplished tale about a miserable young woman who believes that if she could only sleep long enough, she'd wake up different — refreshed and free of her existential pain.

Whatever you may think of her novel's subject — and I'm still on the fence — you have to give Moshfegh props for her skill as a writer. Sleep, that activity we spend a third of our lives doing, may be the least chronicled subject in all of fiction and art. Andy Warhol gave it a try with his cult film called Sleep, which was five hours and 20 minutes of footage of his lover at the time sleeping. The story goes that nine people attended the premiere in 1964 and two walked out during the first hour. The others probably dozed off.

Unlike Warhol, Moshfegh isn't just observing her sleeping subject; instead, Moshfegh wants to fully enter her unnamed narrator's strange frame of mind so that her quest for shut-eye is compelling. Our narrator is a recent Columbia grad whose parents are dead. Thanks to her inheritance, she lives alone in an upscale East Side apartment. Here's how our narrator introduces herself:

Whenever I woke up, night or day, I'd shuffle through the bright marble foyer of my building and go up the block and around the corner where there was a bodega that never closed. I'd get two large coffees with cream and six sugars each, chug the first, ... then sip the second one slowly while I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks. A few months went by. ... I'd wake up to find voice messages on my cell phone from salons or spas confirming appointments I'd booked in my sleep. I always called back to cancel, which I hated doing because I hated talking to people.

In a flashback we learn that, until she was fired for falling asleep on the job, our narrator worked as a receptionist at an art gallery in Chelsea — one of those places that sells so-called "subversive" art. In one of the many wry moments in this novel, our narrator describes an exhibit at the gallery called Cling Film, featuring objects — like a Big Mac and fries, used panty liners and baby teeth — all encased in Saran wrap.

Something else we learn is that our narrator is beautiful — comparisons are made to the young Lauren Bacall and Faye Dunaway. Indeed, a subplot of My Year of Rest and Relaxation involves the passive force of beauty. For instance, even though our hibernating narrator shuns contact, a college friend named Reva keeps showing up at her apartment. Here's our narrator's take on their relationship:

[Reva's] envy was very self-righteous. Compared to me, [she said] she was "underprivileged" . ... I looked like a model, had money I hadn't earned, wore real designer clothing . ... Reva. . . came from Long Island, was an 8 out of 10 but called herself "a New York three". ... She worshipped me, but she also hated me. ... I had chosen my solitude and purposelessness, and Reva had, despite her hard work, simply failed to get what she wanted. ... So when I started sleeping all the time, I think Reva took some satisfaction in watching me crumble into the ineffectual slob she hoped I was becoming.

The narrative suspense of My Year of Rest and Relaxation derives from tracking our Sleeping Beauty's efforts to cure herself of desolation by just sleeping it off with the help of meds supplied to her by a quack psychiatrist. In a bizarre climax, our narrator encases herself in her apartment and embarks on a six month marathon slumber — interrupted only by sporadic trips to the fridge and more sleeping pills. Asleep in her cocoon she's like one of those Cling Film objects from the art gallery.

As engrossing as it is, there's also something undeniably airless and off-putting about this novel. Reading it is like having one of those weird vivid dreams; a dream that's so self-contained, once you shake off its drowsy spell, you may find it hard to remember what it was all about.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Ottessa Moshfegh is a young writer who's already garnered a big reputation. Her short stories have been published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. And her first novel, "Eileen," was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, and it won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. Moshfegh's new novel is called "My Year Of Rest And Relaxation." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan advises readers not to be misled by that soothing title.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Over the years, I've called many a novel a snoozer. But this is the first time I'm using that term in tribute. Ottessa Moshfegh's new novel "My Year Of Rest And Relaxation" is a real snoozer - a daring and accomplished tale about a miserable young woman who believes that if she could only sleep long enough, she'd wake up different, refreshed and free of her existential pain. Whatever you may think of her novel's subject - and I'm still on the fence - you have to give Moshfegh props for her skill as a writer.

Sleep - that activity we spend a third of our lives doing - may be the least chronicled subject in all of fiction and art. Andy Warhol gave it a try with his cult film called "Sleep." It was 5 1/2 hours of footage of his lover at the time sleeping. The story goes that nine people attended the premiere in 1964, and two walked out during the first hour. The others probably dozed off. Unlike Warhol, Moshfegh isn't just observing her sleeping subject. Instead, Moshfegh wants to fully enter her unnamed narrator's strange frame of mind so that her quest for shut-eye is compelling. Our narrator is a recent Columbia grad whose parents are dead. Thanks to her inheritance, she lives alone in an upscale East Side apartment. Here's how our narrator introduces herself.

(Reading) Whenever I woke up, night or day, I'd shuffle through the bright marble foyer of my building and go up the block and around the corner where there was a bodega that never closed. I'd get two large coffees with cream and six sugars each, chug the first then sip the second one slowly while I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took Trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed, weeks. A few months went by. I'd wake up to find voice messages on my cellphone from salons or spas confirming appointments I'd booked in my sleep. I always called back to cancel, which I hated doing because I hated talking to people.

In a flashback, we learn that until she was fired for falling asleep on the job, our narrator worked as a receptionist at an art gallery in Chelsea, one of those places that sells so-called subversive art. In one of the many wry moments in this novel, our narrator describes an exhibit at the gallery called Cling Film featuring objects like a Big Mac and fries, used panty liners and baby teeth, all encased in Saran Wrap. Something else we learn is that our narrator is beautiful. Comparisons are made to the young Lauren Bacall and Faye Dunaway. Indeed, a subplot of "My Year Of Rest And Relaxation" involves the passive force of beauty. For instance, even though our hibernating narrator shuns contact, a college friend named Riva keeps showing up at her apartment. Here's our narrator's take on their relationship.

(Reading) Riva's envy was very self-righteous. Compared to me, she said, she was underprivileged. I looked like a model, had money I hadn't earned, wore real designer clothing. Riva came from Long Island, was an eight out of 10, but called herself a New York three. She worshipped me, but she also hated me. I had chosen my solitude and purposelessness, and Riva had, despite her hard work, simply failed to get what she wanted. So when I started sleeping all the time, I think Riva took some satisfaction in watching me crumble into the ineffectual slob she hoped I was becoming.

The narrative suspense of "My Year Of Rest And Relaxation" derives from tracking our sleeping beauty's efforts to cure herself of desolation by just sleeping it off with the help of meds supplied to her by a quack psychiatrist. In a bizarre climax, our narrator encases herself in her apartment and embarks on a six-month marathon slumber interrupted only by sporadic trips to the fridge and more sleeping pills. Asleep in her cocoon, she's like one of those Cling Film objects from the art gallery.

As engrossing as it is, there's also something undeniably airless and off-putting about this novel. Reading it is like having one of those weird, vivid dreams, a dream that's so self-contained, once you shake off its drowsy spell, you may find it hard to remember what it was all about.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "My Year Of Rest And Relaxation," by Ottessa Moshfegh. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Rob Schenck, who was an influential leader in the religious right, was a leader of militant anti-abortion protests, handed out Ten Commandments plaques to members of Congress and judges. He'll reflect on those times, and he'll tell us why he parted ways with the religious right. He's written a new memoir, called, "Costly Grace." I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.