How Whoopi Goldberg and American Psycho influenced this summer's best novel
A few times a year, a book comes around that makes a person stop everything. Sometimes it’s a cover that turns heads, sometimes it’s a plot that compels, and sometimes it’s word of mouth, an urging from friends that you must read this. This year’s stop everything title — so far — is Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which received a straight-A review from Entertainment Weekly‘s Leah Greenblatt and, for all intents and purposes, is one of the weirdest books of recent memory.
Let’s start with the cover, because chances are you’ve seen it and said: Huh? In today’s world — you know, the one where social media rules all — eyes trained to gravitate towards the more Instagram-friendly color palettes and patterns, but My Year of Rest and Relaxation dares to challenge that norm with a (gasp!) 300-plus-year-old image.
The woman on the cover was painted by Jacques Louis David in the late 18th century and, despite the fact that the French artist had no idea what book Moshfegh was going to write, her face gives away everything a reader should know about the tome. She’s clearly from high society, yet she’s bored to tears and can’t help but let an eye-roll slip. That, in a nutshell, is Moshfegh’s protagonist.
The book follows an unnamed narrator through her trials and tribulations living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side at the beginning of the millennium — and by “trials and tribulations,” we mean that she has become so disillusioned with her life (a job at a snooty art gallery in Chelsea, an apartment purchased with an inheritance from her wealthy parents, a best friend that she actually can’t stand to be around) that she decides she’s going to quit everything and simply sleep, aided by a veritable who’s who of every sleeping pill on and off the market, for a year.
Moshfegh came to this most unusual of concepts in several different ways, and New York City itself was an early muse.
“I think the thing one learns living in New York for long enough is that you can become blasé very quickly,” the author told EW. “I was thinking about that experience while writing this character — she’s so incredibly judgmental and critical of the culture that she’s living in. It’s not like she has a better option for herself, so her best thinking is that she should sleep long enough to wake up with a new perspective.”
Moshfegh also drew from what she described as “conceptual concerns” of hers: The ideas of brainwashing, misinformation, and how disconnected we become from our own lives the more media we consume.
“If there was any intentional point to [the book],” she explained. “It was just that I wanted people to spend some time in their own mind and then put the book down and maybe feel a little bit different.”
If all of that sounds just a tad bleak, just know that My Year of Rest and Relaxation is actually incredibly funny. The narrator provides priceless commentary on everything from the wealthy patrons of her former art gallery to the fashion choices of her pseudo best friend, Reva. Nothing and nobody is immune from her biting criticism and the way in which she describes her daily drug cocktail routine — which is, without exaggeration, the most extensive regimen in literary history — makes the tale an absurdist treat.
To create the fictional pre-9/11 Upper East Side world, Moshfegh looked to a few of her pop culture heroes. She counts Bret Easton Ellis as one of her favorite writers and modeled Rest and Relaxation‘s style after his famous American Psycho.
“The New York City described in that book isn’t so far removed from reality, but it uses fiction to skew and satirize it,” said the author. “That book gave me some confidence.”
Moshfegh also relied on a slightly more unexpected muse: Whoopi Goldberg. The narrator develops an obsession with the actress’ movies, whiling (actually, make that wasting) away her time in-between blackouts on the couch watching her body of work, coming to view Whoopi as one of her only friends (sleeping pills will do crazy things to a person!). She is far too proud and cynical to ever admit to any feelings of sentimentality, but it’s clear that the nostalgia her VHS tapes provide serve as a security blanket of sorts. Moshfegh’s attachment to the actress isn’t nearly that extreme, but she does plead reverential.
“There’s something so authentic about [Goldberg’s] presence onscreen that when I’m watching her I feel like I’m seeing Whoopi Goldberg, the real person, on set,” she explained. “It’s like she’s looking through the camera directly at me and winking to say, ‘we all know this isn’t real.'”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation has drawn praise from every corner of the literary world, has been optioned by Margot Robbie’s production company, and, if her first novel is any prediction (Moshfegh was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and won the PEN/Hemingway debut fiction award), is destined for bestseller status and the awards circuit. As more and more people discover the delightful darkness of a story of hibernation, Moshfegh has become the subject of several (very natural) fan inquiries.
The first is, of course, whether she herself has embarked on a medical experiment similar to her narrator. The answer, of course, is no. But she has been plagued with insomnia since her teenage years and admits she is constantly exhausted.
“I think in some ways this book was a sort of fantasy,” she laughs. “The idea of sleeping sounds so nice, you know? But obviously she’s taking it to a whole other level — I don’t want to be asleep for 23 hours a day.”
The second is whether she herself is as critical as her narrator. Moshfegh has a knack for writing the most gloriously unlikable characters and, to her chagrin, it can be easy to mistake her narrators’ personalities as her own.
“If you look at my work as a whole you might come away with the presumption that I’m kind of a mean, judgmental person,” she said. “And I’m sure I have my moments, but I’m actually really nice! I want to connect with people in a sincere way and that’s the opposite of what my characters want to do.”