I read Prozac Nation when I was, like, fifteen. Totes apropes. I was a junior in high school dating a guy in a heavy metal band (bonus: my parents hated him) and it meant something to be seen walking around with a copy of that book. It was part manifesto, part statement accessory, infuriating and deliciously shocking. (Aside—a few years later, though, Bitch disappointed me.)
I had no idea what to expect from My Year of Rest and Relaxation but my fifteen-year-old self was hoping for a fictionalized Prozac Nation-like book with a statement I could get riled up about. Reviews mentioned a theme of depression, a weird friendship, a terrible romantic relationship, and lots of pharmaceuticals. Perfect.
The story is set in New York City from late 2000 through 2001. From the very beginning, we as readers are hyper aware of this time frame. This is the reality of any major event in collective consciousness—a piece of art based in this time period must somehow acknowledge the event.
I’ve come to think of this as the Luckiest Girl Alive Conundrum. My Book Club pointed out that Jessica Knoll’s brilliant Luckiest Girl Alive has a single flaw: It takes place in Pennsylvania in the fall of 2001 and never once acknowledges 9/11. Granted, it’s irrelevant to the plot line. It might even be a gratuitous add-on to acknowledge it. But the omission feels glaring. This is akin to writing a novel based in Belgium in 1941 and never acknowledging that anything was amiss. In Book Club, we decided that the solution to the Luckiest Girl Alive Conundrum would have been to simply shift the timeline up a year and bypass it altogether. (Side note: I am not a literary critic, so this Conundrum might very well have an actual name and be something that actual literary critics debate.)
Moshfegh does not commit this literary faux pas and we know that the novel’s timeline is zeroing in on 9/11 from the beginning. There are pointed remarks about the sadist sort-of boyfriend and the piteous passive aggressive “best friend” working in the World Trade Center which cinch us to the track upon which the 9/11 theme is barreling down.
I couldn’t get away from that timeline as a plot driver and it disturbed me so much that I actually skipped ahead to the end of the book (something I rarely do!) to mollify my own anxiety about where this was headed. Spoiler here, so skip over this next paragraph if you don’t want to know:
SPOILER ALERT—I needed to know how graphic the depiction was going to be. 9/11 is saved for the very last pages where we learn the fates of Trevor and Reva in a dreamy sort of recap about the event. It absolutely spoiled one plot line for me but it also allowed me to relax a bit and jump back into the book knowing exactly when and how to expect to be confronted with the violence.—END SPOILER
Perhaps Moshfegh intended for us to feel this anxiety. In a way, it’s brilliant. We see this unnamed girl (unnamed narrator = enticing autobiographic potential) refusing to grapple with some of the most uncomfortable aspects of being human: those huge, sweeping questions that, if we stared them in the face for too long, would probably break us. She acknowledges the discomforts of existentialism and non-permanence. But, while her behavior smacks of nihilism—especially in the early ’oughts, when 90’s nihilism was still stalking its way through pop culture—it’s actually a grand admission of the pointedness of, well, everything that makes our “protagonist” decide to check out into a “chemical coma” for a year. Everything is meaningful, everything is contextual, everything is part of the great inhale and exhale of being alive and the unavoidable acceptance of death as the only certainty. Honestly, I’m exhausted too. A chemical nap doesn’t seem so bad.
But Moshfegh doesn’t want us to feel too exhausted by all of this, and so to keep us readers awake, she’s stoked the fire with this 9/11 tension. We know that one of the biggest, most cataclysmic events in our young lifetimes—Moshfegh is a year older than I am and, for us at the older end of the millennial range, 9/11 fell during impressionable college years—is about to happen. This event made many of us struggle with the same kinds of unchecked emotions and overwhelming Big Questions that push the narrator into her chemical coma to begin with.
Despite this, a question for this book that I posed to my book club is this—Is this narrator really relatable? She’s rich, she’s thin, she’s beautiful, she works in the art world, she has 0 authentic relationships, and—for anyone who has ever worried about taking NyQuil after a glass of wine—her insane pharmaceutical diet seems unreal. HOW DOES SHE NOT DIE??? Overwhelmingly, Book Club was underwhelmed with her as a potential human. (I also think I broke them with this book because we read it fresh from of our discussion of The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish.)
Our one breath of comic relief comes in the form of Dr. Tuttle who is almost a caricature of herself, all thick glasses and cat pee. Dr. Tuttle reminds us that there are other people in the narrator’s world, however eccentric they may be, which helps ground us a bit. However bad things get for the narrator, we know there are regularly-scheduled visits with Dr. Tuttle to look forward to.
Reva is a simple character who longs to be complex. She gets in her own way and her self-deprecation borders on the absurd. It’s painful at times to watch how cruel the narrator can be towards her “best friend,” but then we see that cruelness flung right back. We know that Reva clings to this friendship with the same intensity that she clings to her horribly fucked-up affair with her married boss, her terrible job, and her life in New York City. Reva doesn’t like the narrator any more than the narrator likes her, but she likes the idea of her. She clings to the idea of a close friendship with the beautiful, rich girl with the nice apartment and the art world job and somehow that is almost enough for her. She clucks feigned concerns and, at one point, steals the narrator’s meds to “protect” her friend, but then tries to ply her with bottles of tequila and vodka. She says she worries about the wellbeing of her friend but she has no issue with helping her mix alcohol with benzos.
So, what’s the point of it all? Isn’t that the real question? I think the hardest thing to buy about this novel (aside from the crazy arrangement with the “artist” Ping Xi, what even WAS that?) is that her scheme actually worked. She wakes up from this year of rest and relaxation and feels rejuvenated, new, and open to caring. The overwhelm of processing her grief from the death of her parents, the horrible relationship with Trevor, and everything else that’s happened in her young life seems to have passed through her finally. She’s somehow metabolized all the terrible emotional processes humans must go through to fully work through grief. And she did it by finding the right cocktail of meds to help her sleep through it.
Perhaps Moshfegh wanted to leave us with some hope. She ends the novel with a gut punch (see above spoiler) but perhaps she’s also trying to give a suggestion for how we might processes our own demons: a medically induced blackout state in which we can thrash through all the messy stages of grief hidden away from the eyes of the world (and ourselves) and then awake, fresh and new and vulnerable again. Not nihilistic or cynical or any of those terribly brassy states that tragedy can invite us to hang out in.
I loved this book. I thought the writing was brilliant—especially when the narrator enters her manic state and the sentences start to read like ten car pile-ups. The characters are absurdly wonderful and their casual cruelty to one another feels acceptable in these contexts.
This is not a Prozac Nation for us righteous babes. Anger is not the flavor of this book. Despair is not even the final takeaway. But hope is there if you choose—and if you can get past realism and an inherently unreliable narrator.
Rating: 5 valiums + 2 large coffees