One of the (few) books that I correctly predicted would be longlisted for the Man Booker this year was Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel Eileen, having read it earlier in the year. It was a book that I had not yet managed to get around to reviewing. The reason? Well, Eileen is a book that is rather like its main protagonist and narrator; complex and puzzling. It is hard to pin down, a book that you really need to let settle, have a think about and then find other people to talk about it with before your final feelings on it come through, which after quite a few months (well seven, I read it in January, oops) they now have.
Penguin Press, hardback, 2015, fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by a lovely friend from the USA (also available in here in the UK from Vintage Books)
In what we can only guess is the present day, Eileen Dunlop takes us back to the 1960’s when she was not long past the cusp between girlhood and womanhood. Back then she lived with her neglectful (to put it mildly) father and worked at the local correctional facility for men. She also hints that the time she is reflecting on was also the brief lead up to when she left her hometown, ‘X-ville’ New England, a time when it seems Eileen was frankly pretty much as sick of the town as she was herself.
And back then – this was fifty years ago – I was a prude. Just look at me. I wore heavy wool skirts that fell past my knees, thick stockings. I always buttoned my jackets and blouses as high as they could go. I wasn’t a girl who turned heads. But there was nothing really so wrong or terrible about my appearance. I was young and fine, average, I guess. But at the time I thought I was the worst – ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world. In such a state it seemed ridiculous to call attention to myself. I rarely wore jewelry, never perfume, and I didn’t paint my nails. For a while I did wear a ring with a little ruby in it. It had belonged to my mother.
The catalyst for this change soon becomes clear to the reader. After many days dragging by in the dull and nonexistent life in the prison, where she spends most of the time fantasising about what she would like to do to Randy and vice versa, the arrival of a new face stirs things up for Eileen in almost every sense. This arrival, Rebecca, is at once alluring and also to Eileen (a lot like most of the things in her life) utterly repugnant, yet she can’t help being somewhat mesmerized.
In any case, this woman was beautiful and looked vaguely familiar in the way that all beautiful people look familiar. So within thirty seconds I’d decided she must be an idiot, have a brain like a powder puff, be bereft of any depth or darkness, have no interior life whatever. Like Doris Day, this woman must live in a charmed world of fluffy pillows and golden sunshine. So of course I hated her. I’d never come face-to-face with someone so beautiful before in my life.
It is at this point that the reader starts to realise, from the growing clues in Moshfegh’s writing, that something awful this way comes. It is also the point that we start to realise that either Eileen, Rebecca, or possibly both of them, are not quite the sort of girls that they like everyone to think they are. By this point I was of course hooked, especially as I began to realise that, whether Eileen was villain or victim in what was to come, she was a completely unreliable narrator and probably not intentionally. Eileen it seems is playing a slight cat and mouse game as she whispers in your ear with regards to all things truthful. And who doesn’t love that, especially when you have the dreadful foreboding that something truly awful, or several things, is/are going to happen as you read on?
A grown woman is like a coyote – she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness. Over the years I’ve grown to love men for this weakness. I’ve tried to respect them as people, full of feelings, fluctuating and beautiful from day to day. I have listened, soothed, wiped the tears away. But as a young woman in X-ville, I had no idea that other people – men or women – felt things as deeply as I did. I had no compassion for anyone unless his suffering allowed me to indulge in my own. My development was very stunted in this regard.
What that something is I can’t say because I don’t want it to spoil anything for you. I can say that it made my jaw drop because it came completely out of nowhere. In hindsight there were some intricate signs from Moshfegh but at the time it properly knocked my reading senses for six. Which was great, however… Yes, there is a however coming here. It was after this revelation that the whole premise of Eileen as a novel and as a character, became slightly unhinged for me (you can choose if you would like to take that as a pun or not). Let me explain why.
Moshfegh is, without a doubt, a very, very good writer. She likes to play with words and expectations as much as she likes to play with her readers. Great examples of that are the moment she hints she wanted to work in a prison because she was hoping for sexy danger, or the initial focus point for all Eileen’s fantasising being called Randy. There’s lots of these wonderful moments. Moshfegh’s writing is at its most compelling and chilling when she delicately and intricately weaves the most finely spun (by that I mean thinnest, but it is also when she is literally at her finest) of spiders webs around her readers head. This deftness is some of her most powerful writing. It is also when she is at her darkest be it in setting, character or mood which makes the uneasiness it’s most concentrated. There are some sections like below, where a few subtle lines say so more than meets the eye, particularly in the last line.
My daydreams of fingers and tongues and secret rendezvous in the back hallways of Moorehead kept my heart beating, or else I think I would have dropped dead of boredom. Thus, I lived in perpetual fantasy. And like all intelligent young women, I hid my shameful perversions under a façade of prudishness. Of course I did. It’s easy to tell the dirtiest minds – look for the cleanest fingernails.
However after the revelations of what happens we seem to go from carefully crafted psychological thriller to balls out freewheeling plot wise and I think this lost me to a degree. Not enough to ruin the book for me or stop me reading or throw it across the room, just enough to make me pause and have the dark gothic spell of Moshfegh’s prose broken for me slightly. And boy was it a wickedly enchanting spell up until that point. I kept thinking of HIghsmith’s Deep Water as I read on.
Bar that slight blip, I think Eileen is a pretty brilliant debut novel. I love dark, gritty, slightly uncomfortable reads and this certainly ticks all of those boxes. It is also an utterly fascinating character portrait looking at how the way we are brought up and treated affects us, as well as what we expect from women and how society views they should behave. I have been watching BBC Three’s brilliant Fleabag recently, which might seem like a random aside, where we also have a lead character who is dark, frank, tragic, slightly sinister and not quite right, yet we can’t quite get enough of her. I will be very excited to see what Moshfegh follows this up with.
Note. A reader of the blog has asked I add a trigger warning. There are some themes of abuse and violence some may find deeply disturbing. Apologies I didn’t think of that.