I did not read Eileen, but this book caught my attention both due to its title and cover that really stands out. The title sounded almost serene to me, but the cover was a dissonance. The blurb on the cover made it pretty clear that the title definitely is ironic, if not full-on sarcastic.
Our main character and narrator is young, lives in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, had a job in an art gallery, graduated from Columbia, is beautiful and is able to support herself from her inheritance. On the flip side, she has been in an on-off relationship with an older man for eight years. A relationship that may be called dysfunctional at best, and pathological or toxic would probably be closer to the mark. She also has a love-hate-indifference relationship with her best friend Reva. To add to that both of her parents died in the same year when she was in college.
Our narrator is also sardonic, sarcastic, aloof and really quite antipathetic. She seems smart, but there is also emptiness in her, one that she seems intensely aware of, but also is terrified of. We meet her when she already started ‘hibernating’. She retreats from life into sleep, a heavily drug-induced sleep. Initially, she keeps up some appearances but gradually slips deeper and deeper. She loses her job, but the inheritance and the unemployment cheques keep her afloat financially. Also being asleep most of the time she doesn’t need much.
She starts her adventure with Ambien and Nembutal, but quite soon feels that she needs something stronger. Here enters Dr Tuttle, a psychiatrist, who herself could probably use some help, but happily accepts our protagonist’s lies and prescribes her a whole battery of drugs.
As we hibernate with our narrator, Reva visits her occasionally, treated mostly as a nuisance and unwanted distraction, with her bulimia, diets and constant work and relationship problems. Sometimes the abusive lover, Trevor, makes an appearance. But mostly we spend time with the narrator, gradually finding out how she got to planning her ‘year of rest and relaxation’. How she became numb, emotionally drained to a point that she started despising emotions in others and stopped feeling them herself. How she completely and willingly lost connection with reality, because it disgusted her.
Let’s be very honest here, our narrator is not a nice human being. Self-centred to the extreme, unnecessarily cruel, and convinced about her superiority, she can get a touch annoying. But she is also hilarious in her love for Whoopi Goldberg and Harrison Ford and munching on animal crackers. She also shares her ironic observations of society, sparing no one in the process, not the yuppies ( do they still exist?), not the hipsters.
When she moves to the strongest drug in her arsenal, she discovers her consciousness is out for three days each time, but she is then driven by her subconscious, buying things, partying and doing all sorts of things she normally would not do.
I’ll skip the rest of the plot, so I don’t spoil it for you. It definitely was one of the weirdest books I read in recent years. Dark and funny, but also a story of desperate loneliness and lack of meaning felt by a spoiled child. Sad and annoying in equal measures, but most of all surprising and that does rarely happen. If you’re looking for ‘something completely different’ it may just be a book for you.
Quotes from My Year of Rest and Relaxation