Do we act the way we do because of nature or nurture? Is our behavior inevitable, either genetically, or by upbringing, or do we always bear final responsibility for the way we behave? Don’t judge a book by its cover. Literally. If you consider the cover of My Year of Rest and Relaxationby Ottessa Mosfegh you might expect period fiction, but what you get is something quite of-the-minute, new and fresh right down to its bones. The young women our attention is focused on does not even have a name, perhaps because the book is written in the first person, but perhaps with some symbolic significance also.
We listen to a pretty, blonde, thin, 26-year-old who is already exhausted by life. She finds no authenticity anywhere, nothing to dedicate herself to, nothing to love, even, apparently herself. She nails the superficialities of various “cultural tribes” she is surrounded by at Columbia and in her neighborhood. The 40-something moms on the upper East Side come under her judgmental perusal as do the young males in the art history department at her college and the avant-garde artists who exhibit at the gallery where she works. She finds little to really admire in her handsome on-again, off-again boyfriend, Trevor, or her best friend Reva. Only Harrison Ford and Whoopi Goldberg escape her societal ennui.
When she is a junior at Columbia art school she loses both of her parents. Her parents were not exactly warm and fuzzy. About her mother she says: “She was not the type to sit and watch me draw or read me books or play games or go for walks in the park or bake brownies. We got along best when we were asleep.” “My father slept on the sofa in the den that year.” “None of us had much warmth in our hearts. I was never allowed to have any pets. Sometimes I think a puppy might have changed everything. My parents died one after the other my junior year of college – first my dad from cancer, then my mother from pills and alcohol six weeks later.”
Is our girl experiencing some kind of separation anxiety or does the loss of even bad parents cause us grief? Did her family’s inability to connect destroy her ability to feel empathy and affection? She decides that she will sleep for a year and then wake up a new person. Her inheritance from her parents allows her this option and she gets to sleep through the year in a very nice apartment on East 84thSt. which she owns outright.
But it is not so easy to sleep for an entire year. A psychiatrist must be found who has few compunctions about using a prescription pad. Dr. Tuttle is perfect, a real psycho-babble nut who knows her way around insurance rules. Pretty soon our blondie’s life becomes a long list of meds that she pops or guzzles whenever sleep is hard to find. Trazodone, Ambien, Nembutal, Solfolton, Xanax, Lithium, Haldol, Neuroproxin, Maxiphenphen, Valdignor, Silencior, Benadryl, Robitussin, NyQuil, Seconals, Libriums, Pacidyls, Noctecs, Miltowns, Lunesta, primidone and Risperdal, chewable melatonin…until she meets the ultimate sleep drug, Infermiterol. Too bad Infermiterol has one very worrisome side effect.
Even after a couple of months of chemical abuse our sleepy-head, catching sight of herself in the lobby mirror on one of her rare trips to the Egyptian bodega down the street says, “But I was tall and thin and blond and pretty and young. Even at my worst, I knew I still looked good.” But we wonder if anyone could actually survive on this much medication.
We have only covered two somnolent months of a long year. There is plenty more to this story. Do we care about this young lady? Should we care about her? Is there a message to this madness? Only you can decide. But for people who are tired of conventional fiction this certainly isn’t that. Just the gutsiness that comes up with fiction like this makes it well worth a read. Does it matter that our girl’s long sleep ends at a significant historical moment?
I keep thinking about this one, trying to care about this character. My admiration is more for form than any significance to the human condition at this point. Some books have to percolate. I also have a few caveats. One, don’t try this at home. Two, many of these scripts did not work as sleep aids. Three, as an experiment in rebirth, the outcome seems inconclusive.
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