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New York novel offers pleasantly nihilistic view of life
Book review

New York novel offers pleasantly nihilistic view of life

3 min. 22.04.2022
Novel about how the young and beautiful lived before 9/11 is stark criticism of our own society
Times Square, New York, somewhere in the 2000s
Times Square, New York, somewhere in the 2000s
Photo credit: Shutterstock

By Natalia Pikna

The year is 2000, the Twin Towers are still intact, and the twenty-something narrator is disgusted with her life in New York. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” – a bestseller that is sometimes compared to Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” - thrusts the reader into the world of a sedated twenty-something heroine, who no longer wants to feel her emotions. She just wants rest, or, as she puts it, “good strong American sleep”. To achieve this anaesthesia, she concocts elaborate cocktails of various anxiety and sleeping pills. 

Reading Ottessa Moshfegh’s book is a guilty pleasure, its pages filled with details that almost feel wrong to read about. Together, they make for a delicious mix of doom and dark humour, such as when she introduces a therapist who forgets that the main character’s parents are dead every time she sees her. 

The writing is strong, the comments on society smart and exact. This is one of those books that seemingly has nothing much to say, talking about the lives of a privileged Columbia graduate, her bulimic friend, emotionally stunted boyfriend, some artsy types she knows and her dubious therapist. 

Yet Moshfegh touches the pressure points of Western society with bravado, talking of problems of what was a modern age just years back, set against an urban backdrop. Like a nauseating reality TV episode, it is hard to look away.

The book does not offer a single character that isn't rotten to their core. Yet you wonder if all the dirt isn’t coming from the narrator herself, reflecting her privileged, disillusioned character who struggles to see beyond any suffering but her own. While she tries to be comfortably numb and present an impenetrable front, she reveals more about herself and the origins of her problems as the book goes on. Reality is catching up, and you can feel the magnitude of what she has to overcome when she says: “Even at my worst, I knew I still looked good”.

With all the attention there is for gender norms in 2022, the early millennium feels like ancient history. “A beautiful fish in a man-made pool”, is how Moshfegh describes one woman in a sublimely haunting metaphor. In this novel, the male gaze is always lurking in the background, even in the most absurd circumstances. “You look like a skeleton. You look like Kate Moss,” is what one character tells a female counterpart. In doing so, the book succeeds in having a narrator from 20 years ago point her finger at us, exposing the ugliness there was then, and there still is now.

For some readers, the story might become repetitive. Even if this is what the plot is about - notice the redundancy even in the book title – the amount of detail can feel too much. Readers have to be at ease with a general sense of ennui and malaise. Time is only punctuated by visits from Reva, the main character’s pathetically hopeful best friend, her insanely irresponsible therapist (whenever the heroine manages to emerge from her pill-induced slumber), and a few trysts with her on-again-off-again love interest, awake or not.

(Un)surprisingly, references to Plato’s cave appear here and there, which without being a spoiler, should give the reader a taste of what is at stake here. However, somehow, kindness and curiosity for life and people do peep through, carefully, despite the narrator shutting it down just as quickly as it appears. 

Not a book for the faint of heart or the eternal optimist, this novel will appeal to the reader enjoying a dark look at how the young and pretty lived in New York at the beginning of the millennium before 9/11 made us all turn a dark corner.

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