Ottessa Moshfegh’s deceptively titled novel shows she is a master of detail, and also a keen observer of the social norms her main character goes to extremes to avoid. However, none of this feels very new. She will be at Elliott Bay Book Co. on July 13.
There are two ways of looking at Ottessa Moshfegh’s deceptively titled novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”: It’s either an artful sendup of our self-absorbed consumer culture and the pressures it puts on young women, or it’s a derivative piece of fiction that literally ends with a plop, as the protagonist repeatedly watches her recording of “a human being, diving into the unknown.” Actually, it’s a woman jumping from the Twin Towers on 9/11.
I get irony. But, try as I might, I couldn’t catch the wave in Moshfegh’s story of a woman who is either so emotionally stunted or drugged up that she has lost all capacity to empathize. The novel feels neither funny nor wise.
The plot features one idea, and one idea only: A 20-something living in Manhattan whose name we never learn tells us her story of anesthetizing herself with prescription drugs — Ambien, Valium, Seconal, the gambit — for a year, starting in 2000. The date and place offer small hints that the 9/11 tragedy might figure in, but there’s no need for a spoiler alert here. The tragedy is a mere coda to the yearlong sleep-in.
The story’s narrator inherited a tidy sum from her parents, who died while she was in college. So money is no object. What drives her, or rather doesn’t drive her, is an ennui that typifies those who have nothing or no one to strive for.
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She enlists a quack psychiatrist to obtain every downer drug in the arsenal, including one that causes her to have three-day blackouts during which she shops, has sex and — well, who knows what else? She can’t remember.
The pills “turned everything, even hatred, even love, into fluff I could bat away,” she says. “And that was exactly what I wanted — my emotions passing like headlights that shine softly through a window, sweep past me, illuminate something vaguely familiar, then fade and leave me in the dark again.”
It is not irrelevant that the narrator, an only child, never developed healthy relationships with either parent. Her father was preoccupied with his work, her mother with alcohol.
As the novel takes us through her year of R&R, the only visitors to her apartment are her former roommate Reva, a bulimic, and an artist named Ping Xi, whose oeuvre includes a group of taxidermied dogs. Reva is the woman trying to meet society’s norms for slimness, beauty and romance, which her “friend” — quote marks needed — is determined to avoid. Ping Xi is a shock jock of the art world, cynically pushing the limits for the money and attention it brings.
Moshfegh, a writer from New England, brings a promising pedigree to her work. She has collected grants and awards, and her previous novel, “Eileen,” was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. As this novel shows, she is a master of detail, and also a keen observer of the social norms her main character goes to extremes to avoid. Brand names pop up as cultural signifiers, as do the movies and TV programs that the narrator watches over and over during moments of wakefulness.
However, none of this feels very new. Predecessors such as Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and A.M. Homes have used similar devices and mined similar material, all to expose the nihilism that affluence and a few pharmaceuticals can bring.
“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh, Penguin Press, 289 pp., $26
Ottessa Moshfegh will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, July 13, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle,free; 206-624-6600, or elliottbaybook.com