Review 1371: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Ottessa Moshfegh is good at creating unappealing characters, and the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is no exception. From a privileged background, pretty and with no need to work, she inwardly mocks everything, including her only friend, Reva. Depressed by the deaths of her cold parents and by being dumped by her cruel boyfriend, Trevor, she decides that she wants to sleep her way into a new life. So, she loads up with a cocktail of prescription drugs, supplied by her batty, pill-pushing psychiatrist.

This novel can be darkly funny, mostly in a cruel poking at Reva’s social ambitions or other characters’ taste, but also poking fun at the modern art scene. Still, I found it both oddly fascinating and distasteful, despite a more positive ending.

This novel is set in the early 2000’s and works its way resolutely to 9/11.

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Day 1287: In the Light of What We Know

Cover for In the Light of What We KnowIn the Light of What We Know is a novel teeming with ideas and stories. It is filled with conversations about mathematics, politics, religion, philosophy, which makes it sound intimidating. Instead, it is thought-provoking and absorbing.

The nameless narrator is an American of Pakistani descent and privileged upbringing. When the novel opens in 2008, he has been fired from his position as an investment banker and is separated from his wife. At his door appears an old friend from his school days, a man he hasn’t heard from in years. Zafar was born in Bangladesh and raised in poverty in London. But he made his way to a degree in mathematics at Oxford, becoming first an investment banker and then a human rights lawyer. Zafar has been adrift, though, and the narrator barely recognizes him when he arrives.

Although the narrator has occasional remarks to make, most of the novel is Zafar telling about his life in anecdotes and ideas that wander and are loosely connected. Gradually, then, we understand the events that trouble and particularly anger him. All along there are hints of a massive disclosure.

Occasionally, when involved in the many circumlocutions and digressions in this novel, I felt myself on the verge of irritation, but I never actually entered into it. Instead, I found it fascinating. This novel is about exile, the feeling of not belonging, and so much more. It pins itself on the story of an unhappy love affair and on deception in the wake of 9/11. It also has something to say about the financial collapse, the war between Pakistan and Bangladesh (which I didn’t know about), Afghanistan, and many other subjects.

The title is ironic, because Zafar has a fascination with Gödel’s Theorum, which says that there are things in mathematics that are true but cannot be proven to be true. The novel is about truth, knowledge, and belief. What are they, and how do they interact?

This is a novel I read for my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

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Day 1050: Golden Age

Cover for Golden AgeGolden Age is the last book in Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years trilogy. It begins in 1987 and finishes a couple of years into a slightly dystopian future.

The Langdon family tree has expanded since the first book. Now, the original Langdon children are in their 60’s and 70’s. One has died of cancer, and by the end of the novel, only one of them is still living.

By necessity, this novel concentrates more on some of the Langdon descendants than others. Frank and Andy’s sons Richard and Michael are continuing to clash. Richard forges a political career by being a compromiser, while Michael makes it big on Wall Street and subsequently misappropriates funds from several member of his family. Joe’s son Jesse continues to struggle with the farm while both of his sons go to war. Claire finally finds happiness with Carl. Felicity becomes an environmental activist, while Janet spends most of her time with horses. Henry and Andy are also important characters.

Like the other novels, Golden Age covers most of the important events in its time period, the past 30 years—recessions, wars, 9/11, climate change, and fiscal crimes. Guthrie goes to Iraq. A family member is killed on 9/11. Michael is a major criminal on Wall Street.

Although I still felt some distance from the characters because there were so many and because the narration skips around from one to another so often, I couldn’t help but be caught up by the sheer volume and breadth of the trilogy. I wasn’t sure what I thought about the projection into the future of a country largely devoid of rain and mounting in chaos. Smiley, of course, couldn’t predict our current peculiar election results, which shows up the problems with this type of predictive writing in a largely realistic novel. Some aspects of her last chapters remind me a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam series.

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Day 113: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Cover for Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseI’m probably the last person to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which was enormously popular six years ago. I suspect I avoided it for awhile because of the subject matter, which is, of course, 9/11.

Oskar Schell is an extremely precocious nine-year-old boy who is grieving for his father, a casualty at the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Hidden away in a vase in his father’s closet, Oskar discovers a key with a label that says “Black.” Since his father was always leaving him puzzles, he believes that if he can find the person named Black who has the lock that goes with the key, he will get a message from his father. He especially needs this message because that day, his father called repeatedly from the World Trade Center but Oskar could not make himself pick up the phone. In search of this message, Oskar begins visiting everyone in New York whose last name is Black.

The story of his grandparents’ past is told in parallel in a series of notes and letters. His grandparents both lost their families in the bombing of Dresden (perhaps too neat a parallel). Later, they met in New York, but his grandfather, severely traumatized and unable to speak, deserted his grandmother when she became pregnant.

Although it has been criticized for triteness, I found Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a touching and funny novel about loss and about the relationship between fathers and sons (but also implicitly about mothers and sons). It is told in the nontraditional narrative style that is becoming almost traditional–in first-person narration by Oskar, in letters and pictures, and even in pages of illegible typing.

Oskar is a frighteningly intelligent, creative, unusual, and quirky child, and the depiction of his character is my major criticism. To me, he seemed very similiar in tone and style, and in repetitions and oddness, to the autistic older boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Other reviewers have mentioned Holden Caulfield. In fact, although you will like Oskar, you will also find him annoying at times and, I feel, unbelievably precocious for his age. He does not make a believable nine-year-old, no matter how intelligent.