With a hunger for detachment and direction, the complicated unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel begins a deep sleep regimen. “Sleep felt productive,” she declares. “I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.”
The characters in Moshfegh’s fictions are searching for other sites of being: other worlds, other towns, other selves. They must overcome their foibles or the follies of their counterparts to gain entry to elsewhere, to these alternate identities. From the granular misapprehensions and failed connections that fuel the stories collected in “Homesick for Another World” (a finalist for the 2018 Story Prize) to the grand, violent effort for misguided justice and muddled liberation that closes her novel “Eileen” (winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2016), these characters crave disengagement from their present contexts as they attempt to redirect themselves toward new starts, new futures.
Unlike the stumbling, confused, misfit actors of the author’s earlier fiction, the central character of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is focused on supine inaction, realizing that only deep sleep can be an exit from her immediate context and an entrance to self-renewal. “Oh, sleep, nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness,” says the narrator, extolling her hibernation drive.
Told in the first person, past tense, the narrator recounts her attempts, beginning in January 2000, to “escape the prison” of her mind and body. But the surface elements of her life seem to controvert her need for extreme rest and relaxation. Smart, privileged, tall, blond and model-beautiful — “people were always telling me I looked like Amber Valletta” — the narrator lives in Manhattan on the Upper East Side and works at Ducat, a posh, “fine art” gallery, in Chelsea.
Nonetheless, the narrator begins seeing Dr. Tuttle, the quack psychoanalyst-massage therapist she finds in the Yellow Pages, and starts “getting in fourteen, fifteen hours of sleep a night during the workweek,” plus lunch break nap sessions in Ducat’s supply closet. “I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation,” the narrator tells us. “I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.” Readers soon learn, however, that the narrator’s life likely became less tolerable six years earlier when, while she was a junior at Columbia University, her parents died in quick succession: first, her father from cancer, then her mother from booze and psycho-pharmaceuticals.
Six months into her renewal process, after helping launch Ping Xi’s first Ducat solo show, “Bowwowwow” — an exhibition featuring a variety of taxidermied pure-bred dogs with lasers shooting from their eyes — her on-the-job napping gets her fired. On her last night at Ducat, the narrator recalls “the tragedy of my past” as she awakens from her final closet siesta, locks up the gallery and appraises Xi’s wacky instillation through the sidewalk display window. “Maybe this memory triggered the hemorrhage of adrenaline that pushed me to go back inside the gallery,” the narrator proposes. “I pulled a few Kleenex from the box on my old desk, flipped the power switch to turn on the lasers, and stood between the stuffed black Lab and the sleeping dachshund. Then I pulled down my pants, squatted … I wiped myself ... and stuffed the ... Kleenex into the mouth of the bitchy poodle. That felt like vindication. That was my proper good-bye.”
Weird, irreverent and gross, this is the novel’s funniest scene. Throughout Moshfegh’s works, especially her short stories, her humor springs from irony and irreverence. Though this narrator has entered her early adulthood with an undergraduate degree in art history, an inheritance and a co-op apartment on East 84th Street, her inability to mourn her parents is also her inability to love herself or to feel, in general. At a moment when art might help the narrator navigate toward emotional realization, Xi’s stiff, dead dogs don’t actually enlighten. This set piece allows Moshfegh to show readers what the narrator’s psycho-physiological response might be the next time she examines her tragic past: Call it her defecatory tick.
WHAT DREAMS MAY COME
From June 2000-June 2001, the narrator dedicates herself to the beauty of sleep: “reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream.” The narrator survives on bodega coffee and snack foods, entertains herself with movies on VHS (especially those starring Whoopi Goldberg or Harrison Ford) and ingests a long list of varying combinations of real and fictional mood-balancing and sleep-inducing drugs (Infermiterol, Xanax) to sleep her life away. Dr. Tuttle prescribes this psychotropic alphabet soup, believing it will help the narrator deal with her “debilitating fatigue due to emotional weakness, plus insomnia, resulting in soft psychosis and belligerence.”
The narrator’s sole social companions — Reva, her best friend, and Trevor, “a recurring ex-boyfriend” — bring profane folly into the novel. Both characters reflect the narrator’s stunted emotional state; neither one can help her generate feeling. Though Moshfegh never really rounds the boyfriend into a full, necessary character (possibly the novel’s one minor flaw), the narrator recalls several pitiful and blackly humorous moments with him. During their five years of on-again, off-again, nonrelationship-relationship, “Trevor would periodically deplete his self-esteem in relationships with older women, i.e., women his age, then return to me to reboot. I was always available.”
Among the secondary characters I’ve met in Moshfegh’s fictions, Reva strikes me as a masterful invention. “Corny and affectionate and needy,” bulimic, neurotic, nagging, ridiculous, deeply feeling, loving and TV-star pretty — “she looked like Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox put together” — Reva’s both foil and dopplegänger. After the narrator begins cycling into extended sleep sequences, Reva, hoping to shake up the somnolence, comes around with stories about her affair with her married boss and invitations to “celebrate” their youth over drinks in trendy bars.
But the narrator intuits that Reva both worships and hates her. “She saw my struggle with misery as a cruel parody of her own misfortunes. I had chosen my solitude and purposelessness, and Reva had, despite her hard work, simply failed to get what she wanted — no husband, no children, no fabulous career. 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 resentment is mutual: “I loved Reva,” the narrator explains, “but I didn’t like her anymore.”
Some element of the novel’s philosophy arises from its epigram, a lyric from Joni Mitchell’s “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsay,” from her 1979 album “Mingus.” The song is stark, layered, discordant, stuttering rhythmically. Mitchell’s dulcet, soprano singing voice rubs against her jarring, jangling, open-tuned guitar playing, and the sound of howling wolves is dubbed in and stacked like background vocals.
Mimicking the music, the novel’s first half has a loose, rambling, somnambulant feeling. Simultaneously, Moshfegh’s sentences are sharp and coherent. That combination forces readers to attune themselves to the narrator’s dark, howling somnia. If the wolf living in the narrator is something like her moribund emotional core, then she can’t tame it, allow it to consume her or try to kill it off, she’s got to enliven it and learn to live it.
In the novel’s second half, Moshfegh’s tighter formal approach parallel’s the narrator’s more rigorous sleep schedule. Though “sleepwalking, sleeptalking, sleep-online-chatting, sleepeating … was to be expected,” when the narrator begins taking Infermiterol, she loses any memory of her sleep actions. Yet, she’s cognizant of being in a state of “lucid dreaming.” Xi returns late in the work to record the narrator’s lucid dreaming activities. This art is invigorating and surprising. When Moshfegh directs readers to consider Jacques Louis David’s neoclassical paintings (on the cover and in the text), I believe the author’s suggesting that the narrator’s sleep opens her to sublime experience. Like the eponymous character in Don DeLillo’s “The Body Artist,” the narrator renews her linguistic abilities and physical form as she liberates herself from sleep aids. She becomes both art and artist.
While Moshfegh’s new novel is about rebirth, it’s also about the narrator’s preparations for the 21st century’s beginnings. Moshfegh references this historical period in the narrator’s dreams of planes, smoke and ash. Both Trevor and Reva work in the World Trade Center. She name checks DeLillo’s “Mao II” directly and “Falling Man” obliquely. Here, Moshfegh has Dr. Tuttle; “The Body Artist” has Mr. Tuttle. If DeLillo casts an avuncular shadow on “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” the book is also a cousin to Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho,” Jennifer Egan’s “Look at Me” and Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One.”
It’s Romantic to believe that one’s confrontations with what lies beneath consciousness might become equipment for the waking life. Yet, it is important that Moshfegh sets “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” at this century’s opening, before smartphones, tablets, tweeting, Googling and Instagramming became ubiquitous. Since then, many of us haven’t had cache-clearing sleep on a regular basis. Americans don’t sleep enough, generally. With our faces and fingers buried in screens, the narrator’s project would be harder to pull off in 2018. I suspect, however, that if I tuned out, logged off and spent more hours deeply asleep, I might gain renewed clarity, insights similar to the narrator’s unfussy, lucid realizations upon awakening from her final detoxifying rest. Moshfegh’s strange and captivating novel suggests that sleep may be the only thing we humans have for recharging our souls and reawakening our sensibilities in the discovery and creation of beauty.
Muyumba, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, is the author of “The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism.”
Penguin Press: 304 pp., $26