My Year of Rest and Relaxation

By Ottessa Moshfegh

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I find that the most difficult books to describe are books that I’ve loved.

Every time I encounter a book that I truly love, I have the same experience. I sit down to write about it in a rush of enthusiasm, and then end up producing something like this:

“This is a great book. I love this book. It’s really good. It has good characters and good plot and I was surprised and moved. The ending was great. The book was great.”

At which point, I usually end up abandoning the project. Which is sad, because it means I rarely end up writing about the books I love the most. But I prefer to be silent about them, I guess, than to fail to do them justice. Bad books are easy to talk about, but it is very difficult to convey specialness, to communicate meaningfulness to someone who doesn’t know the material. It’s like explaining a joke: you can do it, but you ruin the joke. If I love a book, I don’t want to ruin it by explaining why I loved it. I don’t want to make a hash of my feelings about something that has mattered to me.

I’ve been debating whether or not to read ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘ for a while now. The title is irresistible, and the cover is extremely witty (rarely has a book been as well-served by its cover art). I’ve been eying it in bookstores since it came out a few years ago, wanting to pick it up but worrying it would be…I don’t know…too pop? Stylistic rather than substantive? Ephemeral in the way of mediocre modern novels: readable but not memorable? Glib?

The plot, as described by the back cover, didn’t make me more optimistic: “Our narrator should be happy, shouldn’t she? She’s young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, works an easy job at a hip art gallery, lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like the rest of her needs, by her inheritance. But there is a hole in her heart, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her best friend, Reva. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?”

Doesn’t that sound ghastly? Doesn’t that sound like a shallow, name-droppy, post-‘Sex and the City’ novel about a beautiful young woman discovering that there is more to life than shoes? I’ve spent the past few years wandering into bookstores, picking up this book, reading the back, and putting it down again.

Finally, the other day, the cover art won out over the terrible précis, and I read ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘.

Back covers never really do their books justice, and that’s OK, but, as back covers go, this one turns out to be particularly askew. ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘ is not a story about a thin, pretty young woman with a Wall Street boyfriend. It’s about about a woman trying to sleep for a whole year because modernity is alienating.

Which, I get it, also doesn’t necessarily sound very interesting. I start to understand why the author of the back cover ended up writing such gibberish: this is a very difficult book to describe in a way that might encourage someone else to actually read it. A story about a young woman trying to literally sleep through grief? It doesn’t sound like a fun read.

In point of fact, it’s not a fun read. It’s a book about grief and alienation and love and sleep, a not-terribly-sympathetic young woman trying to fast-forward through her own life in the least mature ways possible (for example, the dramatic abuse of prescription medication). It’s about the parts of our lives we wish would hurry up and end, and about how futile that wish is. It’s about the fact that grief comes for us all, that we can’t sleep through it because a new grief will be waiting when we wake up.

It’s not beach-reading.

Ottessa Moshfegh

Another factor contributing to my difficulty in writing coherently about ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘ is the ending. For most books, their ending is a natural culmination of their story, and it is their story which defines them. A very, very few books, though, are the other way around: these books are defined by their ending, recast suddenly and shown to be something very different than you had supposed.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘ is exactly this latter kind of novel. There aren’t many – they are incredibly difficult to write. Essentially, you need to write two novels at once: the one the reader actually reads, the one with the plot they follow, and a second, a sort of shrouded novel which they will not even notice until they achieve the end and are instructed to see it.

The master of this art, in my opinion, was Graham Greene, who had a penchant for waiting until the last paragraph of his novels and then sucker-punching his readers, delivering cruel parting shots which obliterated any sense of control they might have felt over the story.

But Moshfegh has given him a run for his money here – I can’t actually think of another book which has leveled me so completely on the last page. I won’t spoil it – I honestly couldn’t if I wanted to – but it’s breathtaking. It is brutal and humane and elegant and utterly, utterly novel.

And here my words fail me, again. I can’t describe the feeling a book can give you when it turns you upside down like that.

It’s like a shock of cold air to the face.

Like discovering you’ve always been wrong about something you took for granted, something you thought was a fact.

Like feeling the muscles in your neck relax when you hadn’t even realized they were clenched.

Like seeing something for the first time, and realizing that, if you had not seen it, you would not have believed it.

I loved this book.

Doxology

By Nell Zink

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Can a pointless book be good?

Anyone who has read this blog with any regularity knows I’m obsessed with this question. To declare that, in order to be considered a work of value, a book must have some larger metaphysical or moral point is, essentially, to disqualify almost every work of horror, or fantasy, or romance from being ‘good’ (of course, most of them aren’t good, but very few books are good in any genre). Just as literary genres have their own conventions and codes, might they not also have their own standards, their own definitions, of success and failure? And mightn’t one of those standards be, simply, that they entertain?

I don’t think that many people would argue with me that, for example, ‘Jaws’ (a favorite test case of mine) is a great story. But it’s a great story because it is original and compelling, not because it makes any grand arguments – the shark doesn’t stand for anything, it’s not a comment on capitalism, or the patriarchy, or climate change. Its goals are to be fun and scary, and because sharks are intrinsically fun and scary, it succeeds in its goals. Therefore, it is a good book, in my opinion.

Applying that standard (“Does it entertain?”) to genre novels is pretty uncontroversial; however, when it is applied to realist literature, things become a little more complicated. We tend to have higher epistemological standards for realist literature; we expect those stories to do more than entertain. We expect them to instruct.

But I would like to advocate for the good literary novel which merely entertains, a la ‘Jaws’. It doesn’t make sense to me that we have simpler standards for books with wizards than we do for books about ordinary people. Perhaps the more we, the readers, resemble the protagonists, the more we require instruction: no point about reading about ourselves if we aren’t going to be bettered by it.

But ordinary people can be just as strange and compelling as elves, and not every story needs a moral. I’m advocating for this category, The Good, Pointless Book, and I’m submitting ‘Doxology‘ as an example.

Doxology‘ is about three friends who become a family. Pam and Joe meet in New York City in the nineties. Joe has William’s Syndrome; Pam is a punkish runaway. When they meet Daniel, a transplant from a religious Mid-Western family, the three decide to form a band. Joe is the singer song-writer, Pam the guitarist, Daniel the manager.

However, Daniel and Pam start sleeping together, and Pam is soon pregnant with a little girl she will name Flora. She and Daniel marry, while Joe unexpectedly becomes famous. On 9/11, as Pam and Daniel take their young daughter and flee the city, Joe overdoses on heroin. The family is traumatized, but their lives roll forward: Flora grows up, Pam and Daniel creep into middle-age.

Doxology‘ is really the story of Flora’s young life. She’s totally normal for an unusual kid: she’s smart, stupid, needy, independent. Her parents are cooler and stranger than normal parents, but her life isn’t therefore any more exotic. Aside from being babysat by a rockstar, she lives the life of a Gen-Z: raised by millennials, growing up under the cloud of climate change, idealism deeply challenged by the election of Donald Trump when she is barely out of a college, post-AIDS, post-Great Recession, lost.

And ‘Doxology‘ isn’t going to add anything to your understanding of Gen-Z, especially if you’ve ever seen a TikTok. If there is a greater meaning, I missed it. It’s merely, I think, a quick jaunt with a member of the latest adult generation.

Nell Zink

But it was a fun read, more of a zany ride than High Art. The action is fast-paced. Serious emotional developments are announced only in oblique comments, coded asides. Entire conversations are conducted with a sort of skipping meta-wittiness that makes ‘The West Wing’ look like ‘See Spot Run’:

“So, if I’m not the father, who is?”

“Aaron’s ready to accept responsibility,” she said.

“He’s a fucking socialist who wants to take responsibility for the whole planet. Can he tie his own shoes? Did you check?…It’s my baby,” Bull went on. “Or at least I’m adopting him. If biological-father-boy wants to make it an open adoption, let him try.”

“You don’t need me, if it’s a baby you want,” she said. “Have your own baby. You can afford a surrogate.”

“I guess for you Millenials that’s just one kind of sex work, but FYI, I’d rather be raped by an animal than exploit a woman of color like she’s a piece of meat. I love you, Flora, you fecund slut. I’ve got stuff to finish up here, but I’ll be home in an hour.” (p.366)

I am a millennial, and I have lived in New York City, and I have never, ever, heard a human talk like this. It’s completely unconvincing, but, again, I think that’s beside the point. It’s kind of fun (in an irritating way) to read an entire book about people who talk like this. It’s fun to read a pseudo-absurd thought experiment about millennial parenting. It’s fun to read about events of my own lifetime happening to fictional avatars. I didn’t learn anything, but I enjoyed it, and I guess I just fundamentally believe that that’s a good enough reason to recommend a book.