Fiction – Kindle edition; Vintage; 274 pages; 2016.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. A literary/crime crossover novel, it was also shortlisted for the 2016 Gordon Burn Prize and the 2016 CWA New Blood Dagger.
Come on, Eileen
The story is narrated by Eileen, an anti-heroine, looking back on her 20s and a seminal event that forced her to go on the run. This is how she introduces herself:
So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old 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 children. 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.
In punchy, often daring, prose, Eileen tells us about the bleak nature of her existence — “I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time” — claiming that she feels “invisible”, as if she has been “born into the wrong life”. She doesn’t bother washing, has questionable toilet habits and a weird relationship with food.
Her relationship with her father, an ex-policeman who is an alcoholic, is a strange, tortured and co-dependent one.
He had no loyalty to me. He was never proud of me. He never praised me. He simply didn’t like me. His loyalty was to the gin.
And so Eileen, the perfect outsider with no family or friends to support her, develops unhealthy attractions to her co-workers. First, there is Randy, a prison guard, with big “hound-dog eyes […] and hair that gleamed in a high ducktail” whom she admires from afar, and then there is Rebecca, the new prison counsellor, with whom she strikes up a friendship.
I thought of Rebecca, whose arrival at Moorehead seemed like a sweet promise from God that my situation could improve. I was no longer alone. Finally, here was a friend I could admire and open up to, who could understand me, my plight, and help me rise above it. She was my ticket to a new life. And she was so clever and beautiful, I thought, the embodiment of all my fantasies for myself. I knew I couldn’t be her, but I could be with her, and that was enough to thrill me.
This friendship leads Eileen into dark and dangerous territory, and by the tale’s end a crime has been committed and things will never be the same again.
I read Eileen for my book group and couldn’t quite make up my mind about it: bits of it I loathed, while other bits intrigued me. It’s fast-paced and spends a lot of time building up tension, but this is not a conventional crime novel and there’s not much of a plot. Overall I came away from it feeling disappointed: it seems to take a long time to get anywhere and when you arrive you realise the destination is lack lustre.
The mood and tone of this novel is a triumph, though. A dark fug seemingly wafts from the page, and it’s hard not to turn your nose up in disgust or horror at some of the scenes depicted here. The story is often shocking and vile, but it’s witty too in a matter-of-fact kind of way.
Eileen herself isn’t someone you want to spend an awful lot of time with, yet her voice, so full of resentment and self-loathing, is impossible to ignore: you get dragged into the sorry depths of her horrid life and wonder how she ever escaped the entrapment of poverty, squalor, hopelessness and hatred. As a character study, I suspect you would be hard pressed to find anything more searing, alive and lucent than Eileen.