Born off the back of a desire to rake in the dollar, as Moshfegh candidly admits in an interview with The Guardian, Eileen tells the tale of a lovelorn misfit trapped in suburban New England, imprisoned by the demands of an increasingly erratic and alcoholic father. The sense of suffocation this breeds is compounded by her job at a children’s prison where she spends her days fantasising about running away. Her nights alternate between swilling back vermouth or stalking Randy, one of the prison’s young wardens. Until, that is, Rebecca Saint John joins the staff and changes her life forever, drawing her into a brutal act of retribution.
If Eileen easily won over publishers through its tempting summary, this is no good thing; this is because the compressed idea of the novel, reduced to its very essence, is in almost every way superior to the thing itself. The promise the book holds is left unrealised, leaving the reader unsatisfied and greatly disappointed. As it stands, it veers absurdly in tone from Prozac Nation-esque alienation, to The Cement Garden-style perversion, to a queer re-enactment of Thelma & Louise – albeit without a cliff. The pity all this evokes results in the over-riding urge, upon finishing this monster of a novel, to launch it and its protagonist, unceremoniously, into the deepest chasm available.
That one of the central themes of the book is life as an outsider, of not fitting in, is entirely appropriate given Eileen is a novella or, worse still, a screenplay in a novel’s ill-fitting clothes. Reaching the generically appropriate word count for a novel involves Moshfegh’s narrator returning to the same neurotic thoughts and actions again and again. What is clearly supposed to be transgressive becomes, through repetition, utterly disgusting. Only so much vomit and menstrual matter can serve a literary purpose; beyond this lies the meaningless revulsion of which the great drag act Divine, who once ate dog mess on camera, is the undisputed queen. The constant reminders enforced upon the reader of the advanced age of the contemporary Eileen, the emancipated narrator, before authorial satiation sets in can only go so far. It is incredulous to believe that the absurd simile “I’m like a beautiful tortoise” spills from the pen of a Man Booker Prize-nominated ‘genius’.
Apparently the Man Booker Prize was established to promote the reading of quality fiction among an intelligent general audience. Frankly, the shortlisting of Eileen (and even its longlisting) is an insult to that intelligence. This is a book that becomes tolerable only in its final quarter, is baggy in style and sloppy in execution. It leaves a taste in the mouth only Divine could describe. Don’t waste your time.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin, 2015)
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