Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

>> Tuesday, October 04, 2016

TITLE: Eileen
AUTHOR: Ottessa Moshfegh

PAGES: 272

TYPE: Fiction

Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize

A lonely young woman working in a boys’ prison outside Boston in the early 60s is pulled into a very strange crime, in a mordant, harrowing story of obsession and suspense, by one of the brightest new voices in fiction.

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes—a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.

This is the story of how I disappeared.

The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker in a home whose squalor is the talk of the neighborhood and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a buff prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the bright, beautiful, and cheery Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at Moorehead, Eileen is enchanted and proves unable to resist what appears at first to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.

Played out against the snowy landscape of coastal New England in the days leading up to Christmas, young Eileen’s story is told from the gimlet-eyed perspective of the now much older narrator. Creepy, mesmerizing, and sublimely funny, in the tradition of Shirley Jackson and early Vladimir Nabokov, this powerful debut novel enthralls and shocks, and introduces one of the most original new voices in contemporary literature.
Poor blog must be feeling quite abandoned! Really busy time at work = no time or inclination to sit in front of a computer any more than I absolutely have to. Things have slightly calmed down, though, so as the announcement of the Man Booker Prize winner approaches, I'd better start getting my reviews posted.

Eileen is probably the book in the shortlist that has got the most lukewarm reviews, with many readers actively disliking it. I'm one of them, although I probably hated it more while I was reading it than afterwards, when I was thinking back about it.

This is the story of Eileen, a twenty-four-year-old young woman living a life she fantasises about leaving. She lives with her alcoholic and verbally abusive father, grudgingly taking care of him (that mostly means buying alcohol for him and maybe some tins of food). She's an admin worker at a youth correctional institution, a job where she's surrounded by people she detests. But for all that she hates her life and dreams of running away, it's clear she won't do it. Until a fateful Christmas Eve.

So yes, I had a horrible time reading this book and had to force myself to finish. The problem is that Eileen is one of the most unpleasant, pathetic, mean-spirited characters I've ever read. She's ugly, in that her character is ugly. She's utterly self-involved, but not in a narcissistic sort of way. Rather, she hates herself, from her personality to her physicality. The book positively revels in how repulsive everything is. There is a lot of focus on bodily fluids... the piss, the shit, the pus, the vomit, even the menstrual blood (which certainly felt different... male authors, who tend to be more into writing books with a lot of bodily fluids than women, are too squeamish for that, however much of a macho image they try to project). Everything is disgusting and repellent, and it's overpowering.

Once I was done reading, however, I was able to try to think about the book more objectively: does it do what it's trying to do successfully? Actually, for the most part, I think so. Much as she repulsed me, I found Eileen believable. The narrator, who's telling the story from the vantage point of being a 75-year-old who's lived a full life after she became a completely different person, is clear-eyed about just how pathetic she was back when she was 24. She's basically our omniscient narrator, and there's no obfuscation. She portrays Eileen almost savagely, pointing out her failings and all the many ways in which she's a horrible person. But she also makes it clear why it was so, and why Eileen is also pitiful, someone whose character is completely influenced by her circumstances.

Where the book falls down is in the ending. Most of the book is just Eileen going round hating everything around her and in her, and nothing much happens. When things happen, it's very near the end, and it's revelation after revelation, with characters acting in ways that I didn't quite buy. The change was too sudden, possibly, and I thought it didn't work.

MY GRADE: So I guess Eileen tried to do something that really wasn't for me, but had some success in doing it, until it fell down in the end. Since my grades are about my personal enjoyment and appreciation of the books in question (I'm afraid I'll say that a lot in the next couple of weeks), I'm afraid I'll give this a D.


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