When life goes wrong – because of death or broken relationships or career failure – many of us just want to crawl into bed and never resurface. In Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, sleep becomes not just a last resort in a time of crisis but a credo for her protagonist. ‘Oh, sleep,’ Moshfegh’s unnamed first-person narrator, in her mid-twenties, exclaims, ‘nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness. I was not a narcoleptic … I was more of a somniac. A somnophile.’
Sleep is, for the book’s narrator, a way to transcend the bathetic compromises of adulthood and thereby attain a new equanimity. She wants to ‘hibernate’ for a year. To achieve near-permanent restfulness she takes an astounding variety of prescription drugs, doesn’t leave her flat in New York (apart from rare trips to the bodega for coffee and video tapes) and shuts out the world and its clamour. Her aim is to evade reality through sleep and ‘become a whole new person’.
The novel is set between the turn of the millennium and 9/11. The reasons for the narrator’s decision to withdraw from the world are initially vague but, as the plot unfolds, we learn that both her parents have recently died and that she is still hung up on her