Book Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

In 1945, French theorist André Malraux provided an addendum to the 18th century: if the concept of a god is dead, so is humanity. However, this misses the point. We stopped believing in humanity much before we ever turned a critical prism to god. 

It would seem trivial to note that the unnamed protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, mirrors this idea. They are without God and probably without a concept of humane. 

Set in flitting images of 2001 on the Upper East Side, Moshfegh acquaints us with our Columbia graduate and heiress through delirious self-descriptions. The first of which is, naturally, a run-through of her financial situation: she is collecting rent from tenants in her parents’ home; she has inherited a fortune in the form of an investment portfolio; imperatively, she “has a high credit limit on her Visa card.”

She notes, as though reassuring herself: “I wasn’t worried about money.”

Moshfegh’s central character is instead affected by a constellation of anxieties, intricate but incoherent to a third party, entirely familiar only to those within the same surplus labor pool. Manhattan is like East India in that way. 

Indian agricultural redevelopment has driven a population of indigenous Adivasi yeomen to the margins of the subcontinent, either rehired for pennies or swept into the Naxalite insurgency. 

New York’s cultural redevelopment has driven the regular population of would-be artists and dilettantes out of their standard fixtures, either hired into more unbecoming commercial work or receding into the warm embraces of nepotism from which they first burst into life.

The former party is worried about money. The latter has more room for philosophy, convincing themselves of their intellect. Our Columbia-graduate heiress spends pages assuring us of her erudition, especially relative to that of all of her friends and peers. 

She is not worried about money: she is worried about the contracting horizons of her life. She is concerned about her feelings, the sensual world and about dying without having quite lived.

So, she takes handfuls of pills and sleeps throughout the year. A year inside. It is a year of rest and relaxation, assuaging her always tasteful anxieties and taking the time to convince herself both of the universality of the feeling (a human condition) and that she is among the only people so cunning as to understand it. 

She has slept so that she might be awake again. Malraux circles back in his speech: we must reinvent a concept of the human, such that humanity might recognize itself. 

Malraux recommended that people make this definition based on common fear of the universal constant, its reality renewed by the Holocaust: death. We all die, and all humans are alike in this way. 

Though we do not all die the same way. The untalented artist living off of their inheritance sits inside her cloister, in fear of death, a distant threat to her livelihood. 

It is anxiety; it is the anticipation of an unbecome death. The displaced farmer dies every day. They have no such anxiety.

The book concludes with her rewinding the images of the Twin Towers collapsing, over and over, fixated on a diving woman, arm splayed upwards as she falls. She concludes that a coming death endows us all with humanity. 

She is wrong; she misunderstands death, comforting herself with a tasteless sense of its reality. Death is a simple fascination for those who will never quite die; it is their good feeling.