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FICTION: THE BIG SLEEP

October 21, 2018

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"I had started hibernating as best I could in mid-June of 2000. I was 26 years old. I watched summer die and autumn turn cold and grey from a broken slat in the blinds. My muscles withered. The sheets on my bed yellowed, although I usually fell asleep in front of the television on the sofa ... I didn’t do much in my waking hours besides watch movies. I couldn’t stand to watch television. TV aroused too much in me, and I get compulsive about the remote, clicking around, scoffing at everything and agitating myself ... the only news I could read were sensational headlines on the local daily papers at the bodega. I’d quickly glance at them as I paid for my coffees. Bush versus Gore for president. Somebody important died, a child was kidnapped, a senator stole money ... Things were happening in New York City — they always are — but none of it affected me. This was the beauty of sleep — reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream. It was easy to ignore things that didn’t concern me. Subway workers went on strike. A hurricane came and went. It didn’t matter. Extraterrestrials could have invaded, locusts could have swarmed and I would have noted it, but I wouldn’t have worried.”

It’s not uncommon that when life becomes overbearing with either its monotony or too many surprises, we wish to just disappear from it. And many of us try: by taking a break, going away or just separating from its flow for a bit. But how many of us actually aim to hibernate for a year and try to sleep with the help of medication in order to wake up with a cleansed and renewed consciousness?

Somebody did exactly that in Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. (Moshfegh’s previous novel, Eileen, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.)

In a new novel, a young woman attempts to sleep away an entire year to get over her existential ennui

Moshfegh’s novel follows a nameless narrator through her claustrophobic world of darkened rooms, dusty blinds covering the windows in her lavish apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where she lives in all the material glory of comfort that her inheritance has enabled her. She is a Columbia graduate (all paid off and no student loans), young, thin and pretty. She’s all that one could hope for in the youth-worshipping society governed by the laws of American capitalism. But there is something wrong, something desperately missing in her life. Could it be the loss of her parents? Her part-time Wall Street boyfriend and the way he treats her, like a piece of trash which can be discarded at any time and at any place? Or could it be her rather confused relationship with her only friend in the narrative, Reva? Is there any way a reader, if not the narrator, can figure it out?

In the glittering city of New York, this young woman — our narrator — decides to take on a year-long hibernation. Initially her plan is not so elaborate; just a benign consultation with her psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, who is perhaps the most messed up psychiatrist ever witnessed in the annals of Western literature by virtue of her shady professional credentials and her inability to diagnose her patients. “I wanted to get a little downer on my thoughts and judgement,” says our narrator, but her encounter with Dr Tuttle soon becomes this grand scheme of being prescribed the strongest possible drugs that can send her to sleep. Fooling the doctor into giving a prescription is not hard for a narrator as smart as ours, but Dr Tuttle is convinced she suffers from insomnia and requires clinical help in treating it. Conversely, our narrator intends to use all her prescriptions to go on an uninterrupted hibernation and wake up with renewed energy and a fresh perspective on the world around, but that’s not how she discovers her life unfolding in the aftermath of her mission.

Although some part of her day is spent awake — she eats sporadically, takes bathroom breaks and meets Reva who visits her apartment from time to time — the narrator remains under the sleepy spell of the medicines she takes during her waking hours. She realises soon enough that as a result of the improperly prescribed medication, she’s begun to sleepwalk, and her sleepwalking self has a life of her own. Waking up at brief intervals, she has no memory of what she did while sleepwalking, what she bought, what went out of her control. She becomes another person altogether, a person she doesn’t want to be, a person who cares and feels. When unconscious, she becomes what she consciously avoids being. It reminds us of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, except that Moshfegh’s book portrays a rather disinterested, amoral, dismal world of individual choices and loneliness that American society has witnessed and its unique psychological effects on people: it is only when she is sleepwalking, not in control of herself, that our narrator attends her friend Reva’s mother’s funeral.

“The carefree tranquillity of sleep gave way to a startling subliminal rebellion — I began to do things while I was unconscious. I’d fall asleep on the sofa and wake up on the bathroom floor. Furniture got rearranged. I started to misplace things. I made blackout trips to the bodega and woke up to find popsicle sticks on my pillow, orange and bright green stains on my sheet, a half-eaten huge sour pickle, empty bags of barbecue flavoured potato chips, tiny cartons of chocolate milk on the coffee table, the top of them folded and torn with gummy teeth marks. When I came to after one of these blackouts, I’d go down to get my coffee as usual, try a little chitchat with the Egyptians in order to gauge how weirdly I acted last time I was there. Did they know I’d been sleepwalking? Had I said anything revealing? Had I flirted? ... It concerned me that I was venturing out of the apartment while unconscious. It seemed antithetical to my hibernation project.”

Although Moshfegh’s novel seems to promise a lot through this bizarre tale of a young woman’s journey to ‘cure’ alienation and existential ennui — as if they were curable — the end product doesn’t really live up to it. At times the narrative drags in its staleness with unnecessary details, padding the story to its rather obvious climax. However, the themes of alienation, our existential situation in the world and ‘being’ — as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger called it in his book Being and Time — are important and Moshfegh’s attempt to bring home the point that they are not only essential components of life, but crucial to our appreciation of it, gives her book a certain glow. It’s a darkly comic and yet a rather serious book, keeping us aware of what makes us human and how far we can go with the abundance of materiality as the sole purpose of our life.

The reviewer is a PhD student at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin, US
ISBN: 978-0525522119
304pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 21st, 2018