Monday, December 28, 2015
Review: "Eileen" by Ottessa Moshfegh
This is quite a way to end 2015. Eileen, the first novel of writer Ottessa Moshfegh, is a haunting and rather entrancing novel detailing the inner life and eventual outer chaos of a young woman whose sad life is on the cusp of change. It is the perfect book for a lonely winter night, taking place during a cold New England winter in the mid-sixties, and presents a narrator who is fascinating, scary and highly sympathetic. The book, over the course of its 260 pages, slowly builds toward a rather malicious, if not entirely gob-smacking twist that lends the book a creepy vibe very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson or Flannery O’Conner. It takes a while for the book to finally get there, but the payoff is worth it. In that sense, it really reminded me of a book by Harry Crews called A Feast of Snakes, which only unleashes the madness literally in the final two pages. A point I want to get to that may be a bit controversial has to deal with the narrator, the wonderfully twisted Eileen. On one hand, she is not a foil, since she does what she does willingly, and she is neither a one-dimensional cipher for a feminist creed, which happens a little too often in female-centric fiction. She is something much more: she is a deeply flawed, deeply hurt human in a world that would sooner spit on her than give her the time of day, and when she finally fights back, it is something to behold, and to be terrified by. The person I’ve been talking about is one Eileen Dunlop, living in X-ville, (the name she gives the town), although I’d argue what she is doing is hardly living at all. She works a nightmarish job at a boy’s juvenile facility called Moorhead (another fake name), she lives with her alcoholic father, whose tiny jabs and verbal cuts are slowly driving her crazy, much more so after her mother died, and her only solace is in the sadomasochistic fantasies she has involving the men she works with, mostly with a guy a named Randy, and some of the boys incarcerated there. She is not a pretty girl: neither fat nor skinny, attractive or ugly, she is just rather plan, by her own accounts, and you’d hardly give her a nod if you passed by her. It reminds me a lot of Lou Ford’s awe-shucks socio-pathology in The Killer Inside Me, or, for a REALLY highbrow example, the character of Iris in Aki Kaurismaki’s The Match Factory Girl, of someone put upon finally seeking cruel vengeance. And what triggers that is the appearance of Rebecca, one of the facilities new teachers, who connects with Eileen in a way she is not familiar with, and involves her in a crime that will bring those simmering, toxic feelings to the surface and send her off in a new direction. The twist I read about in EW really wasn’t much of one, more of a scary revelation, but it didn’t hinder this book’s quality in the least. This is a truly disquieting, silent assassin of a book, one that introduces a strong new voice in fiction and one that will keep you up at night in the long winter evenings to come.