We have traveled a long way from the land of the nice. The unnamed narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s mordant second novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” is cruel, gorgeous, duplicitous and lazy. She’s happiest — not that she does happy — horizontal and zonked out on a buffet of drugs.
So, to bed for as long as it takes. Her plan “was the opposite of suicide. My hibernation was self-preservational. I thought it was going to save my life.”
Her year of rest, and less relaxation, starts in mid-2000, and follows into the next year before that horrible fall. Not one but two characters, the narrator’s only friend and her former toxic boyfriend (whom she begs back for sport and wretched sex), work in the twin towers.
Our narrator, a gallerist — her beauty and indifference make her doubly qualified — is drifting after the deaths of her father (beloved) and mother (ghastly) months apart during her junior year at Columbia.
“I thought that if I did normal things — held down a job, for example — I could starve off the part of me that hated everything. If I had been a man, I may have turned to a life of crime. But I looked like an off-duty model. It was too easy to let things come easy and go nowhere.”
She secures one of the worst shrinks in fiction, a gem of a bumbler named Dr. Tuttle. Tuttle never listens while being wrong about everything. She’s the sort of person who drives patients into therapy and has a talent for bewildering pronouncements: “Orphans usually suffer from low immunity, psychiatrically speaking. You may consider getting a pet to build up your relational skills. Parrots, I hear, are nonjudgmental.”
Moshfegh, whose 2016 “Eileen” won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, has near perfect pitch. The author of a short-story collection and a novella, Moshfegh is also wickedly funny. If “My Year’s” plot lags a bit — reading about trying to sleep is about as interesting as trying to — the coruscating aperçus and ancillary characters never do.
Understandably, 9/11 become a major touchstone in American fiction. Lesser writers tend to pervert the moment into a horror-movie gimmick, all shock, no resonance. I groaned upon realizing the year and office locations but, in the hands of a substantial talent like Moshfegh, they work. The ending, the failing of so many contemporary novels, is splendid.
In curing the narrator’s “solipsistic terror,” her doctor suggests, “There are alternatives to medication, though they tend to have more disruptive side effects.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
Yes, this reader responds, with you, Dr. Tuttle.
Karen Heller is a feature writer at The Washington Post.
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press. 304 pp. $26