dark humour

For in this sleep of death what dreams may come…

This is my review of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

For a long time, I believed that timelessness was a necessary characteristic of good literature. I’ve always though that “classics” are books that can stand the test of time. This means no pop culture references, no politics. IF you think about it, that would impose quite a few restrictions on a modern storyteller- what if we stop using fossil fuels in the next century? Will the EU last until the next millennium? JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien got it right- negate fashion trends by having everyone dress in robes or rags, set up your own currency to avoid inflation induced sticker shock… But what about non-fantasy genres?

Capturing the essence of the here and now is an art in itself (impressionism?). If a work of fiction evokes a place and time in the past, that sense of being somewhere else, or feeling nostalgic, is an achievement.

Anyway, my point is this: My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a book that proudly dates itself in the early 2000s. The protagonist is a woman in her early twenties who has recently experienced trauma- both her parents recently died. This puts her in the position of being very rich and very alone. Her coping mechanism is to sleep. Sleeping in closets at work. Sleeping pills on the weekend. She tells herself that a year of uninterrupted sleep will heal all her wounds. She quits her job, finds herself a quack therapist to provide an endless supply of maximum strength sleeping pills, and gets to work.

There’s not much more that I can say without spoiling the plot. It’s the kind of hare-brained scheme one would expect to see in a sitcom with a laugh track. One doesn’t really expect said scheme to be successful, but the audience is just along for the ride. The darkness of the subject matter is barely acknowledged. The fact that the unnamed protagonist is severely depressed is not addressed (because her form of self treatment does not involve self awareness, apparently), and red flags from her childhood are only mentioned in passing. It’s meant to be a black comedy, and hits the mark simply by having the most ridiculous plot delivered with none of the emotional over-expression that’s so common in literary fiction.

What really made this book for me was the ending. It ends as abruptly as it starts, and revelations are as understated as they are in real life. Sometimes it takes the most dramatic of world events to make a person realize the importance of staying awake.

3.5/5 from me. The book will leave you feeling as fuzzy headed and confused as a person waking up from a 16-hour nap, but it’s worth it.

Edgy Children’s Fantasy

Poor, neglected blog.

Well, here’s a good one to make up for months of emptiness.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman.

Have you read the Chronicles of Narnia? It’s a children’s storybook series in which four children in WWII-era Britain find their way into a magical kingdom with talking animals. And subsequently become rulers of the kingdom and have many adventures. I used to love those stories! It was only recently that I found out that the stories are thinly veiled Christian allegories -who would have expected that giant lion to be a representation of Jesus?- and it’s a little strange to be seeing the series in a new light.[*]

Anyhow, The Magicians features a magical land called Fillory that is reminiscent of Narnia (probably not a coincidence). The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is an oddball young man from New York, who has grown up reading and loving the Fillory series. After high school, he gains admission to the poorly-named Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, which he promptly joins because “it’s exclusive”.

Brakebills is the antithesis of Hogwarts. Students are overworked and put through multiple traumatic experiences for the sake of education. And they indulge in copious amounts of casual sex, bullying, and unhealthy competition. Despite thisĀ  (or perhaps because of this?) they are successful in learning the intricacies of magic.

Jaded and worldly-wise, Quentin and his fellow graduates move to NYC to pursue a life of irresponsible hedonism. When an ex-classmate reveals that Fillory is real, they decide to travel there. They don’t find what they expected though, and an epic battle ensues.

There are several plot points that seem to be poking fun at the original Narnia series, and these inside jokes made the book worth the read. For instance, the difference in the passage of time between the real world and Fillory means that the Kids wind up there in the dead of winter, but by the time they come back armed with warm clothing, it’s summer again. Unlike the knowledgeable talking animals of Narnia, the animals of Fillory don’t seem to have overcome their natural instincts- a talking bear seems more willing to discuss honey than the politics of the land.

Reviews of this book seemed largely critical of Quentin’s personality, and the negative cast this gives to the narrative. He’s immune to the joys of boarding school, because he gets caught up in academic competition. He fails to be awestruck by Fillory, the land of his childhood dreams, because he is consumed by jealousy and heartbreak after losing his girlfriend. I think, though, that this was part of the author’s mockery of children’s fantasy- they so often forget that the characters are teenagers, and more importantly, human. They have personalities and emotions beyond just being awestruck by magic and being heroic.

4/5 from me. Read this if you like dark, bleak stories and also children’s fantasy. This is probably a strange niche.



[*] Edit to add: Read an article that mentioned another interpretation of the Narnia-verse. You may remember that the series ends with the Pevensies (and Eustace and Jill and the kids from The Magician’s Nephew), sans Susan, dying in a railway accident and winding up in Narnia permanently. This apparently means that they got to go to Heaven when they died, but Susan did not, because she did not believe in Je-Aslan (AsJesus? As-us? Jes-Lan?) any more.