Sleeping Beauty

Ottessa Moshfegh
Ottessa Moshfegh; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

Like her first novel, Eileen (2015), narrated in a memorably dyspeptic first-person female voice, Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel reads like an uncensored, unapologetic, despairingly funny confession. Its unnamed narrator is a twenty-four-year-old woman who looks “like a model” and defines herself as a “somnophile”: “Oh, sleep. 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.” In June 2000 she is living in an apartment on East 84th Street, on a trust fund established for her by her recently deceased parents; a Columbia University graduate, she has recently quit a coveted job at a Chelsea art gallery to retreat from the world and indulge herself in prolonged periods of sleep:

[I] took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks. A few months went by…. My muscles withered. The sheets on my bed yellowed….

Sleeping, waking, it all collided into one gray, monotonous plane ride through the clouds. I didn’t talk to myself in my head. There wasn’t much to say. This was how I knew the sleep was having an effect: I was growing less and less attached to life. If I kept going, I thought, I’d disappear completely, then reappear in some new form. This was my hope. This was the dream.

Self-medicating—“hibernating”—is the narrator’s stratagem for getting through her life benumbed to feeling: “This was the beauty of sleep—reality detached itself and appeared in my mind as casually as a movie or a dream.”

Since the deaths of her parents, to whom she seems to have been very little attached, the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation has slipped into a state resembling an open-eyed coma. Memories of her childhood and her parents’ dully disastrous marriage torment her; she hopes to avoid memories of their last unhappy days. (Though estranged in life, the father and mother die within a short span of time.) She avoids friends and acquaintances, and barely manages to tolerate her closest friend. She’d wanted a prescription from a doctor just for “downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything,” but eventually the massive ingestion of drugs dulls more than hatred:

I felt nothing. I could think of feelings, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me. I couldn’t even locate where my emotions came from. My brain? It made no sense. Irritation was what I knew best—a heaviness on my chest, a vibration in my neck like my head was revving up before it would rocket off my body. But that seemed directly tied to my nervous system—a physiological response. Was sadness the same kind of thing? Was joy? Was longing? Was love?

In flat, deadpan, unembellished prose recalling…

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