Given humanity’s collective fondness for seminars on creative writing, we’re all aware that a story needs at least one character with at least one goal. It’s typical for this goal to be something that inspires interest in the reader. Some characters want to defuse a bomb or seduce a sea captain. Some may aim to become the world’s greatest barber or to perform a legendary heist. Others prefer to solve crimes with the aid of baked goods or house pets. Whatever their ambitions, they are usually something fun to read about. This is because reading something entertaining is more entertaining that reading something that isn’t entertaining.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” features zero parakeets with investigative chops and omits even a single mention of a handsome sea captain, instead choosing to focus on its narrator’s goal of sleeping away most of a year. While many may chalk this up as a writer not knowing on which side her bread is buttered, others will realize it’s a Ottessa Moshfegh book, and anything she writes will certainly brim with delights. Certainly there are scores of those who identify with such a goal, and so will turn to the book for guidance on how to eschew a year of one’s waking life.
The unnamed narrator has a pretty simple plan to achieve her goal: first, before formulating her plan, she inherited wealth from her parents, then she picked a doctor at random from the phone book, then she got lucky that the doctor was insane, and then the doctor prescribed her tremendous amounts of drugs that make one sleepy. (The insane Dr. Tuttle offers regular bursts of comic relief along with the regular infusions of an absurd quantity of chemicals into our sleepy narrator’s life.)
There is no thriller’s crescendo as in her earlier (and superb) novel “Eileen.” As the unnamed narrator seeks stronger medicine to deliver her into her void, she starts to blackout and do wacky things while she sleeps. The reader only learns about these hijinks from their aftermath. The narrator decides to enlist an acquaintance to bring her pizza and other staples while he makes an art project out of her sleepiness. The reader gets some well-earned wisdom on vomiting up medication that, in the face of the staggering amount of chemicals she’d become accustomed to, were an absurd pittance to her body’s chemistry: “Let them go, I told myself. Besides, two Benadryl were a joke. Like blowing a snot rocket at a forest fire. Like trying to tame a lion by sending it a postcard.”
The novel builds to a close that the reader is expected to see coming (the novel is set in New York circa 2000-2001), but the details and delivery give it power you might not expect, at least until reading this sentence.