Ottessa Mosfegh’s novel, out in paperback since July last year, details the experience of an unnamed orphaned young woman living in New York at the start of the millennium who embarks upon a year of sleeping in a bid to fix her ennui. With the help of a questionable psychiatrist called Dr Tuttle who plies her with prescriptions to every sleeping pill under the sun, the narrator spends a whole year in a self-induced coma with only occasional trips to get coffee and visits from her bulimic best friend Reva as interruptions. The narrator is white, privileged, and in her words, like an ‘off-duty model’, with ample opportunities she rejects, brimming with insights on the world she sees.
Moshfegh places her novel in a pre-9/11 New York filled with super-ficiality and narcissism, best exemplified in the Chelsea art gallery where the protagonist worked before getting fired. It is a place of emptiness, filled with ‘avant- garde’ art designed more to excite shock than to present anything of value, a trend which the narrator mocks repeatedly. With a straight face, she baldly describes how the star artist Ping Xi inserts pigment pellets into his penis and then masturbates on a canvas to produce works which were ‘all nonsense, but people loved it’.
Locating the plot in this period is an excellent move – a time far enough from the present that technology and social media do not intervene in the central sleep mission, while still being recognisable. Chunky cell-phones, and VHS tapes of old Whoopi Goldberg movies crop up intermittently in the plot.
Rest and Relaxation is not the most restful or relaxing of reading experiences. The protagonist is caustic and darkly humorous, but I soon begin to find myself agreeing, and viewing the world through her misanthropy. But for all the cynicism which pervades the book, there are moments where I felt genuine sympathy.
There are instances of disconcerting sentimentality, as when she explains her reluctance to sell her dead par-ents’ house because there may be remnants of their skin cells and fingernails still inside. It is often the physicality and imagery which are the most moving: descriptions of Reva crying or binge-eating. Like Moshfegh’s previous work Eileen, there is a deliberate attempt to create a subversive image of a woman that might provoke disgust. She is no sleeping beauty – three-day spells of hibernation triggered by Infermiterol (a made-up drug) leave her covered in stains and ‘eye boogers.’
For a novel in which the heroine spends a lot of time comatose, it is enthralling. The voice is compelling and witty, drawing one into the experience.
Characters like the quack Dr Tuttle (found in Yellow Pages of course) and Reva, whose dialogue is straight out of a Noughties advice column, fill up the pages with vivid nonsense. Lines are delivered candidly and designed to leave you with a wry smile. The ending is epiphanic, and left me questioning all that had just happened in the past 300 pages without rendering them at all a waste of time.