Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen by Ottessa MoshfeghEileen (2015) by Ottessa Moshfegh
I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life—the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There's no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.
When I was in the middle of reading Eileen, I wrote on Twitter that it was one of the realest portraits of self-loathing I've ever read, and I still think that's the best way to describe it in a nutshell. The paragraph above, taken from the first couple of pages, is a perfect summary of the dark, twisted ambience that pervades both the story and its narrator.

Said narrator is Eileen Dunlop. She looks into the past to tell her story, speaking from what's probably supposed to be the present day, but recalling a younger version of herself, and the action, such as it is, unfolds over the course of a week in 1964. Living in a town she calls 'X-ville' with her alcoholic, abusive father, Eileen constantly dreams of escape. Her job is as 'a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys', which she refers to, also pseudonymously, as Moorehead. It's here that she meets the glamorous Rebecca, and those fantasies of freedom start to seem more plausible. In her own words: 'In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.'

Eileen is saturated with self-loathing and self-obsession. Everything about her body, even her very existence, is excruciatingly embarrassing and disgusting to her, but at the same time she revels in it with a kind of mordant glee. She is fond of - even obsessed with - thinking and talking about her (and other people's) bodily functions. She has an aversion to washing (she tells Rebecca, 'I like to stew in my own filth sometimes. Like a little secret under my clothes'), and a laxative habit; she chews chocolates and spits them back into the wrappers. A virgin at 24, she's frequently preoccupied by sexual fantasies, most of them about a colleague - Randy - who she spends her weekends stalking.
I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer's.
Eileen epitomises what I couldn't help but think of as the messiness of being a woman, the ugly flipside of a societal preoccupation with female bodies and sexuality. She is all rage - pure, unruly emotion - and while she is repugnant in many ways, it's difficult to hate her. Her combination of torment and immaturity can be heartbreaking. She speaks frequently of her 'death mask', a blank face she uses to hide the uncontrollable hatred and confusion burning within, though she seems conflicted about whether she wants people to be fooled by it or see right through it (probably both), whether she wants the death mask to function as camouflage for her inner turmoil or a signal of it. Of a shop assistant, she says:
My death mask didn't seem to perturb her at all. It always peeved me when my flatness was met with good cheer, good manners. Didn't she know I was a monster, a creep, a crone? How dare she mock me with courtesy when I deserved to be greeted with disgust and dismay?
She feels differently about the boys at Moorehead. She sees them as her equivalents, treats them with a pity that comes off as self-indulgent when she tries to draw parallels between their suffering and hers. But through this, we also get a sense of how desperately she needs an outlet for her feelings:
I hoped they saw right through my death mask to my sad and fiery soul.
No surprise, then, that she's instantly drawn to Rebecca - Moorehead's incongruous new 'director of education' - like the proverbial moth to the flame. A figure straight out of a classic movie, she's all glamorous airs and insouciant smoking, wrapped in elegant coats and talking in femme fatale cliches, 'hair rippling behind her, eyes like daggers'. It's all an act - we see that when Eileen notices the literal cracks in her armour, her chapped lips and 'scraggly' hair - but Eileen is seduced because she wants to be, and because of her profound naivety.
The way she talked was so canned, so scripted, it inspired me to be just as canned. "Say." People didn't really talk like that. "A cocktail." If she seems insincere, she was. She was terribly pretentious, and later, in hindsight, I felt she'd insulted my intelligence by selling me her scripted bunk. "Darn it all." But at the time I felt I was being invited into an elite world of beautiful people.
Readers hoping for a plot-driven mystery may be disappointed, as the swathe of Goodreads reviews claiming that 'nothing happens' will attest. This novel is a character study (a superb one), and the whole point of Eileen is the character of Eileen. The other characters matter in the sense that her interpretations of them matter. It may have noir influences and thriller pretensions, but the denouement is the weakest part of the book, because it stops focusing solely on Eileen's interior life and jumps into dramatic events that don't quite work. Rebecca's actions and motivations feel hastily cobbled together; Eileen increasingly seems like the only real person among a cast of caricatures. Added to which, the stakes just aren't very high: due to frequent, if brief, references to her life after these events, we know all along that she did get out of X-ville and that, if she did do something terrible, it's likely she never got caught.

This could have been an instant favourite - and I get the feeling Moshfegh will write something I'll unequivocally adore in future - but its flaws are a bit too big and its omissions a bit too disappointing. (I'd love to have seen Eileen's obsession with Rebecca develop over a longer period of time, with the former interpreting everyday interactions as evidence of a meaningful bond between the two; I'd also like to have known more about what kind of life she went on to have.) It doesn't fully embrace its brilliance as a character study, and in trying to be more, it becomes less.

This review is already longer than I would like it to be, but I could write endlessly about this book and its narrator, could've included many more quotes. Eileen joins the ranks of unforgettable female characters who inspire both sympathy and repulsion - characters in whom we see our worst selves uncomfortably reflected. If you were fascinated by Barbara in Zoƫ Heller's Notes on a Scandal or Nora in The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, Eileen - and Eileen - might be your perfect match.

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  1. You have written a great review. I, who am always going on about how I like gritty and disturbing novels, suspected that this one would be too much for me. Your review confirmed my suspicion. Though I liked Notes on a Scandal and I like Mary Gaitskill, who writes about self-loathing in some of her books. Oh and then there are certain novels by Joyce Carol Oates. Maybe I am coming around-:)

    1. Glad you enjoyed the review, though sorry I might have helped put you off it! It's a great story, but I know what you mean about it being a bit much. I've never read Mary Gaitskill, but have been meaning to get round to it for a couple of years.

    2. Veronica by Gaitskill is amazing though quite gritty and disturbing.