Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh review: little shock and no awe
A lack of narrative cohesion leaves this much-hyped debut novel floundering
Life for the eponymous messed-up narrator of this contrived, out-to- shock debut has been reduced to sharing a neglected house with her bereaved father, a drunk who spends most of his waking hours in his underwear. He’s a retired cop but nowadays he enjoys “lobbing snowballs at children from our front porch”. People have complained. Cue canned laughter. The book is full of similar carefully-staged, unfunny gags.
Eileen Dunlop is 24 – or rather she’s not. Half a century has passed since she grew up in X-ville, a New England town. So now aged, wised-up Eileen recalls the humdrum week that led to her setting off for further adventures. Just in case the reader forgets the vast sea of time, the narrator frequently repeats ‘back then’ as she tells a story that for all its gross detail and snide asides quickly proves tiresome – and tired.
One reason for persisting with this queasy, gratuitous, extended prologue of a novel is to attempt to discover why anyone would compare it with the work of Shirley Jackson or the great Flannery O’Connor. Indeed, what is even more baffling is how as fine a writer – and reader – as John Burnside could refer to it as “a modern masterpiece”. The narrative voice is neutral, even complacent; there is no remorse or even a hint of regret while the blurring of the young and older selves is deeply dissatisfying.
Eileen is the sort of girl who keeps a large mason jar by her cot up in the attic, should she need to urinate on those days when Dad is on the rampage downstairs. Cue more fake laughter. “The movements of my bowels were a whole other story. They occurred irregularly – maybe once or twice a week, at most – and rarely without assistance.” Yet as she is addicted to laxatives which assist her towards bathroom experiences which are “torrential, oceanic, as though all of my insides had melted and were now gushing out, a sludge that stank distinctly of chemicals and which, when it was all out, I half expected to breach the rim of the toilet bowl . . . Those were the good times.”
Excess drives the descriptions. It is as if Moshfegh has grasped the fact that few things excite modern publishers more than the grotesque and an author daring to be offensive. As a bottom-scratching, finger-sniffing, no hand-washing creation, Eileen never becomes more than a disgusting, impersonal caricature caught up in her fascination with her self-loathing: “Having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself. This was the kind of girl I was.”
No prizes for guessing she works at a correctional facility for young boys where she lusts after a prison guard, and former inmate, named Randy. He appears to be barely alive but she dutifully stalks him, driving by his house in the broken-down Dodge complete with a dead mouse in the glove box. “Who knows what I would have done had I found him French-kissing some Brigitte Bardot type?” Note period detail.
Although Dad’s antics provide something of a demented sideshow at home, Eileen’s revulsion centres firmly on her body, its contents, her pitted skin, her smells and her various hangovers (she is no mean drinker herself). There is a sister and an ancient suspicion of father and daughter incest but never mind. Eileen is equally merciless when describing practically everyone else. Ridicule is her natural medium.
Her main function at the correctional facility is to write bizarre questionnaires to further tax distressed parents. In a novel consisting of one major flashback sequence there are also a few peeps down memory lane such as when her mother “would be lying on the couch in the living room, reading a magazine, a bottle of vermouth stuck between her thighs, cigarette smoke floating above her head in the stuffy afternoon sunlight like a brooding storm cloud”. This preamble leads to strange request: “Promise me you’ll visit me in hell, Eileen.”
For all its concentration on the ugly, the narrative is curiously devoid of true menace. It reads as if Moshfegh is working with a very small group of images which quickly become exhausted through repetition. Taking the role of fairground barker, the older Eileen remarks on the many weak men she has been involved with throughout her life but there is nothing of the existence that took shape after the so-called great escape.
Dross and dirt
It is ironic that a random, repetitive narrative such as this, which relies on vile behaviour and thoughts lovingly recounted, is seen as noir literature. “I was a shoplifter, a pervert, you might say, and a liar, of course,” admits Eileen and she also notices the child-like cleanliness of Rebecca’s aura.
Moshfegh consistently fails to achieve the bravura candour and pathos of Anakana Schofield’s recently published, far less hyped Martin John, which is far more accomplished. In it, a marginalised anti-hero grapples with his many demons, including sordid sexual obsessions, yet he manages to emerge as weirdly sympathetic. Schofield’s prose possesses an impressive linguistic sophistication which also eludes Moshfegh. Above all Martin John resounds with adroitly-handled comic timing.
As a novel, Eileen is not The Virgin Suicides for 2016 – it is more like a very lame, poor man’s American Psycho. It is interesting to reflect upon how shock value has diminished since Ellis’s book was published in 1991. Hype builds reputation but on examination Moshfegh appears to be so taken with the idea of a repellent anti-heroine she never really gets around to developing much of a story around her. Its lack of narrative cohesion leaves her novel floundering and the prose is insufficiently exciting to elevate it. It is strange as a reader not to be interested in how 50 years separates two sides of one character who may as well be two different people. Well-reviewed in the US, Eileen reveals a great deal about the gimmicky quest for the next big thing which often turns out, as it does here, to be far less worthy of attention than yesterday’s superior offerings.