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'Rest And Relaxation' Is As Sharp As Its Heroine Is Bleary

Imagine taking a sabbatical, not just from your job, but from your life. How about going even further and taking a yearlong break from yourself and the world, courtesy of an extended nap? That's the desperate plan of the unnamed 24-year-old narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh's bizarrely fascinating second novel. This miserable young woman hopes she can hibernate for a year and literally lose herself — her haunting memories, obsessive thoughts, and acidic negativity — and emerge from her sleep-cure as "a whole new person." My Year of Rest and Relaxation is her hyper-articulate account of this disturbing, ultimately moving "self-preservational" project. You might call it a rest-oration drama.

Moshfegh's self-proclaimed somniac and somnophile evokes Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov's classic 19th century Russian novel about profound lassitude and ennui — but only to a point, and in a twisted sort of way. Like Oblomov, she's privileged with an excellent education, ample inherited wealth, and people to manage her estate. Both lack worldly ambition and would gladly stay in bed round-the-clock. In both cases, their disillusioned response to the hustle and bustle of daily life says something about their effete culture. But Moshfegh's narrator isn't lazy like Oblomov — in fact, she's single-mindedly goal-directed: She wants to sleep and sleep and sleep. And she's made a deal with herself: "If, when I woke up in June, life still wasn't worth the trouble, I would end it," she states unequivocally.

Her project begins in 2000, a date which gives pause: So depressed already, pre-9/11 and the 2016 presidential election, you can't help thinking. She requires pharmaceuticals — lots of them — to execute her plan, and finds an all-too-willing psychiatrist, one of the worst (and funniest) shrinks of all time. A running gag is Dr. Tuttle's inability to remember the central trauma of her patient's life, namely her chilly parents' tragic deaths within six weeks of each other when she was in college.

Much of the novel's action consists of popping pills — a buffet of more than two dozen name brand meds. This quickly gets tiresome, and more soporific to the reader than the narrator, but Moshfegh raises the stakes when her narrator turns to a fictional, sinister, blackout-inducing drug called Infermiterol that leads to weird spa days, clubbing, and shopping sprees she doesn't remember upon awakening. Moshfegh's sharp prose provides a strong contrast to her character's murky "brain mist:" "My vision pixelated, moiréed, then blurred and womped back into focus," she writes after one bleary awakening. Amidst all the far-fetched logistics of this young woman's self-obliterating scheme, the fact that she doesn't die of an overdose is the most astonishing aspect of this novel.

Like the soused, wildly inappropriate 30-year-old math teacher in "Bettering Myself," the leadoff story in Moshfegh's Homesick for Another World, the narrator of R&R describes her daily routine in loving detail. When not sleeping, she watches movies and eats animal crackers and Thai food between slipper-clad excursions to the corner bodega for bad coffee and RiteAid for prescription refills.

The only one checking in on her is Reva, the bulimic best friend from college whom she finds more annoying than likeable. That's part of her problem: She's a lifelong outsider, and her parents' deaths left her well off financially, but emotionally strapped. She's unable to move beyond a degrading on-and-off relationship with a total creep, whom she keeps calling and texting pathetically. She's also beyond caring what others think about her — though she does tell us repeatedly what a knockout she is, effortlessly slim and blond and looking "like an off-duty model" even on her worst days. "No fair!" Reva protests repeatedly.

Moshfegh knows how to spin perversity and provocation into fascination, and bleakness into surprising tenderness, but her dark humor and ghoulish sensibility are not for everyone.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is, among other things, about the narrator's guilt about being such a bad friend to Reva, the rare optimist among Moshfegh's characters (whose hopefulness is portrayed as misguided to the point of inanity). Like the eponymous narrator of her Booker prize-nominated, noir first novel, Eileen, R&R's characters aren't particularly sympathetic or likeable. Yet they aren't entirely without hope or heart — and most decidedly not without interest.

Moshfegh knows how to spin perversity and provocation into fascination, and bleakness into surprising tenderness, but her dark humor and ghoulish sensibility are not for everyone. She's drawn to the transgressive and the disgusting, finding plenty of both in the offensive art at a downtown gallery where her narrator briefly works. (She has a field day mocking the ridiculous reviews these shows receive.) Reading her, you gawk and balk but can't turn away.

I won't risk spilling the beans, but Moshfegh so heavy-handedly foreshadows her denouement that it should come as no surprise to anyone who's half-awake. It certainly puts her character's suffering in perspective. More importantly, it marks a bold — if not entirely earned — leap to a less solipsistic worldview and a broader relevance for this provocative writer. As for her narrator, let's just say it's a serious wakeup call.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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