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Why My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh triumphs in our era of Covid-19

When literature aids escapism

By Jordan Stead

Ottessa Moshfegh delivers an interesting premise to her 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation - a young woman graduate desires to sleep for an entire year within the realms of her Manhattan apartment, hiding away from the rest of the world. This unnamed narrator does what she can to ensure her task is complete. With the aid of various medications, a rather ludicrous therapist-turned-shaman and her VCR, Moshfegh delves into the dark recesses of this narrator’s journey in her attempt to gauge a new life after her induced sleep stasis. As we now enter just a little beyond a year of the current Covid-19 pandemic, with what seems to be a very promising light at the end of the tunnel, reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation was affirmatively resonant. For those, like myself, who endured the pandemic’s halting force over the summer of last year, all that was left to do was to wait, and in such a case, rest. In this time I found myself enduring a deep process of self-reflection and self-healing as the UK entered lockdown by which only now beginning to ease. After months of stand-still, there was nothing to do but bide the time, wait for pockets of air and help each other as best as we could. For the case of the narrator and her sleep journey, the paralysed and lucid paragraphs produce a labyrinthine of lost time and wavering processes as she attempts an intense shedding of the past, and in waking, a renewed and worthwhile future. There isn’t any wonder as to why sales of My Year of Rest and Relaxation increased over lockdown as the narrator’s strife is no further from our own, albeit one that is self-inflicted rather than imposed. Her internalised processes and daily, half-awake practices would have hit the nail on the head for many of its readers during the pandemic, myself included.

Months of bedroom zoom calls, infuriating Netflix parties and meet-ups whenever possible dominated my lockdown experience. Time melted into one indistinguishable pot. Yet Moshfegh ensures that the narrator's journey is not painted as something glamorous, nor a mindful and peaceful experience as the novel’s namesake suggests. Our narrator does not lounge on her bed and simply enjoy the process, but is met with complications during her comatose. With continuous interruptions from her self-absorbed friend and haunting thoughts of her toxic yuppie ex, our narrator’s sleep is hardly a fairytale. She is also terrorised by the death of her apathetic parents, a grief that is laced into the narrative. There is a sense of despair and confusion towards this loss, and as such is immediately recognisable when related to the bigger picture. Grief is the core of this story, as was ours, and it builds in a familiar bubble of paranoia. Furthermore, the narrator is not painted as a lovable character but rather one that is more human than we would like, thus strengthening the relevance of her story. The need to hide from the world and succumb to lethargy and perhaps older habits was my reality in the early stages of Covid-19. The pandemic was a time to rescind and unwind for some in our year of nothing; to face up and stare at harsh truths and make changes, some revolutionary. This, however, cannot be said for the majority. NHS workers, key workers and the vulnerable all have faced the horrific brunt of the virus, and the loss is unimaginable. It is a collective grief we all share that is still felt to this day with tensity. Occasionally as the narrator dips out from her self-induced coma, she can gather only remnants of the news: earthquakes, floods, fires and government corruption. Even the headlines of the early noughties felt almost too relevant. Meshfegh also places the novel at the scrape of the millennium, with its events gradually climaxing at the September 11 attacks in New York. This rising tension in her world is thus not lost within ours, and its underlying sense of danger felt all too real. I think many will remember the sudden onslaught of panic-buyers, doomsayers and deniers at the beginning of Covid-19’s spread, followed by the horrific and sudden rise in deaths. As I mentioned, the interest in her work two years later surprised Moshfegh, as she stated that it was an ‘unfortunate plus’ due to the book’s unflinching, isolating atmosphere; its relevance is uncanny. Like the narrator’s four walls and daily walks to her nearby bodega, our small worlds also shrunk in the pandemic, as well as our pacifying rituals. After finishing the novel myself I could not help but feel a certain pang of reflection and a sense of reality. Thus what resonates is this; that literature can help guide us through our complicated thoughts and grievances in a time where the world feels inexplicably changed. Book sales boomed amidst the pandemic, specifically with poetry, which opened up landscapes and stories that took us away from the rather terrifying ordeal we found ourselves in. It is no question that literature holds this power, thus its continuous riches. When the narrator returns to the world of the living after her deep slumber, the turn of the novel’s climate grants hope. There is regeneration and a sense of capability, promising that even through hardship the self can still survive. ‘Humanity finds purpose when it can’, states Mosfegh in an interview with Vox, ‘it’s like flowers growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk. People can grow anywhere. That is beautiful.’ My Year of Rest and Relaxation teaches its reader that, even in the midst of the unpredictable, our capability to persist is what’s vital. Hopefully, as a new year creeps closer, we too will be wide awake.

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