Eileen – Otessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2015)
I finished this book in about two days, which gives you a pretty good idea of how compelling a read it is. Yet now, days later, I find myself struggling over what to say about Eileen and even whether or not to say that I liked it.
It’s a compulsive read. While the action itself is pretty limited, Moshfegh does excel at creating tension and build-up and so, even though I had no idea where the story was going, I was eager to get there. When you do reach the major climax twist, it was a very unexpected turn of events.
Eileen Dunlop is in her early twenties, lives with her alcoholic father, and works at the local prison for teenage boys. She has a halfhearted plan to escape the small town she calls X-ville but the reader gets the feeling that Eileen herself will never instigate this plan. She’s an unpleasant person, something she freely admits to and, as our narrator, seems to relish describing her own disgusting habits. We get a lot more information about her bowel movements than is typical for most novels, for example. A lot of her so-called gross habits seemed either not that shocking to me or clearly the result of an emotionally abusive and neglectful childhood. Since Eileen is our narrator, it seems likely to me that in her efforts to shock the reader with her story, she doesn’t realize that she’s actual revealing how damaged she is.
The blurb on the book gave me the impression that this was going to be more along the lines of a thriller or horror story but it really isn’t. It struck me as quite a sad story about a sad, lonely woman who is trapped in a variety of ways. She longs for relationship with others but has no idea how to achieve this and so is alternately manipulative, creepy, or awful with everyone around her. She knows she’s not normal, but she’s also not as deranged as she thinks she is.
What ends up changing Eileen’s life is a friendship (of sorts) with a beautiful young woman named Rebecca. Eileen meets Rebecca through her job at the prison (all kinds of horrible stuff through that) and quickly becomes obsessed with her. In a matter of days, they strike up a friendship and this leads to the ultimate climax and what finally causes Eileen to leave X-ville and change her life.
There’s a lot of detail of Eileen’s daily life – what she eats, what she drinks, what she wears, how she goes to the bathroom – throughout the book and I’m not convinced it’s all necessary, though it does paint a vivid portrait. And, perhaps, that’s really the point of the story. The action is brief. Shocking, but a flash compared to everything else, and the novel is, after all, called Eileen and so exists as a portrayal of an unusual young woman. A woman who you can’t help but wish could have realized that she wasn’t so unusual after all.