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.
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.