Comedic spin on a graduate weary of life

The comedy is on point in My Year Of Rest And Relaxation (right) by Ottessa Moshfegh (above).
The comedy is on point in My Year Of Rest And Relaxation (right) by Ottessa Moshfegh (left).PHOTO: KRYSTAL GRIFFITHS

The subject of American writer Ottessa Moshfegh's latest novel is a 24-year-old Columbia University graduate who spends a year in a state of chemically-induced "hibernation".

A year of rest and relaxation might seem like every burnt-out woman's fantasy. But there are no spa retreats or sybaritic pleasures in store for Moshfegh's narrator, who, weary of life, numbs her senses with television, antidepressants and blackout-inducing pills.

The narrator immures herself in her apartment in the Upper East Side of Manhattan where she retreats into a drug-induced haze.

Meanwhile, the world around her is changing. Bill Clinton completes his second term as United States president, George W. Bush is elected into office, and the story culminates in the Sept 11 attacks.

Moshfegh, whose first novel Eileen (2016) was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, writes this one with the same brand of caustic prose and dark humour. My Year Of Rest And Relaxation is a masterfully executed piece of work.

The narrator's life isn't as rosy as it might seem. Her parents are dead and she is surrounded by a toxic mix of sadistic men and skinny women: from her abusive Wall Street boyfriend to her envious, clingy college friend Reva.

The narrator isn't exactly the sort of person someone would want to have in their life. She is an unsympathetic friend ("I'd rather be alone than anybody's live-in prostitute", she says when Reva talks about getting married). She has a job at the art gallery, but her sloppiness gets her fired. Her personal hygiene leaves something to be desired. After a while, doing the laundry becomes too much trouble for her - "So I just threw away my dirty underpants."

Yet there is something liberating about the narrator's laconic, tell-it-as-it-is style, unfettered by social mores and the obligation to be nice or ladylike. The latter is a trait she seems to share with her hero Whoopi Goldberg. "Wherever she went, everything around her became a parody of itself, gauche and ridiculous. That was a comfort to see. Thank God for Whoopi. Nothing was sacred. Whoopi was proof."



    By Ottessa Moshfegh

    Penguin Press/ Hardcover/ 289 pages/ $32.10/ Books Kinokuniya

    4 stars

The book's comedy is on point. The quack psychiatrist Dr Tuttle, a "pharmaceutical shaman", supplies the narrator with liberal doses of medication and some of the book's most hilarious dialogue.

The narrator might be mistaken for a misanthrope, but one senses that she is a vulnerable character who is merely doing what she can to cope with her own pain and loss.

The ending is hopeful: in the final pages of the novel, the narrator finishes her medication and chucks out her videotapes, most of her clothes and furniture, paving the way for her not so metaphorical reawakening.

Readers of Moshfegh's work tend to fall into two camps: those who recoil from her fascination with the scatological and profane, and others who find it oddly cathartic, or at the very least, refreshing.

But whatever your sensibilities might be, the brilliance of her prose - lithe, searing, crackling with wit - can hardly be denied. If you haven't read any Moshfegh, you are missing out.

If you liked this, read: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Vintage Publishing, $19.94, Books Kinokuniya), a dark and comic story of a secretary in a boy's prison whose friendship with a counsellor changes her life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2018, with the headline 'Comedic spin on a graduate weary of life'. Print Edition | Subscribe