Eileen
by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)
Penguin (2015)
272 pp

A grown woman is like a coyote — she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness.

I was pleased to see Eileen make the Booker longlist, but also surprised. As much as I enjoyed and admired the novel, it didn’t strike me as the kind of thing that might make the cut. It’s far from perfect, is often notably gauche and rough-hewn, and, while it’s to an extent a character study of its female protagonist, is basically a noir thriller, and often feels pulpy and propulsive. (Plus there’s the unavoidable matter of numerous heavyweight authors being notably absent from the longlist.) So how did Eileen get amongst the thirteen?

Eileen

Putting aside the sniffy U.K. reviews of the novel (I don’t think I’ve read a positive one), I can only assume the panel this year are up for a ripping yarn. Eileen is split into two very distinct parts: the first introduces us to our eponymous anti-hero and delivers an intriguing, queasy portrayal of a young woman in trouble. She’s stuck with her father, a paranoid alcoholic ex-police officer taken to throwing snowballs (and waving a gun) at children he’s mistaken for ‘hoodlums’ who watch him night and day. The neglected house they uneasily share looks ransacked and is the site of two people clearly on the margins. Eileen is her father’s de facto carer: running to the liquor store to keep him in gin, hiding his shoes to prevent his wandering off and into inevitable trouble. He derides her and treats her with contempt, which doesn’t help her already near non-existent self-esteem.

Eileen works at Moorehead, a local correctional facility for boys, a job she drifted into and fantasises about escaping, as she does her unloved hometown (“X-ville”). She fulfils numerous administrative and menial roles, but spends most of her time speculating about the other members of staff, and the inmates. It’s from her observations about her workplace and those languishing in it that we get our best early sense of who she is and what makes her tick. She quickly fixates and obsesses on people, in lieu of any friends or family, and a guard at the prison, Randy, is the first notable obsession we discover. She drives over to his house, simply to park up nearby and hope he spots her and reciprocates. Such behaviour is typical of Eileen: her boundaries are fuzzy, her perception of others prone to idealistic narratives in which she becomes quickly entangled with them. She is both self-loathing and self-obsessed, a volatile and erotically-charged bundle of contradictions. She’s also regularly inappropriate, simply out of naïve curiosity and the exigencies of an interior life much more vivid than her outer existence.

Since there were no female guards or officers, I suppose, it was my duty to pat the mothers down, lazily tapping around their shoulders and hips, a small pat on the back. It was the most intimate moment of my day, tapping these sad women. Randy would be there, too, usually standing guard at the door of the visitation room, and sometimes as I touched those women I imagined it was Randy I was touching, Randy, who like those women, seemed to barely even notice me.

There’s always that tension with Eileen, between acts and her almost cinematic, distanced appreciation of them. Her body is presented as an unwanted object. She haplessly eroticises random gestures and imagines most people she works with naked or copulating. She’s right on some kind of edge, and you can see her imminently slipping off — she drives her dad’s Dodge around drunk; she blacks out and wakes up having driven it into a snowdrift, frozen vomit on the passenger seat. She makes icky use of someone else’s pubic hairs on a bar of soap. Something is very awry, and her vulnerability to disaster will soon lead her into dangerous teritory.

A new arrival to Moorehead, Rebecca Saint John, initiates the second part of Eileen.

This is not a love story. But just one last bit about Randy before the real star of my story appears. It’s funny how love can leap from one person to another, like a flea. Until Rebecca showed up a few days later, it was the constant thought of Randy that kept me afloat.

Rebecca is a provocative, glamorous, scene-stealing redhead, brought in to counsel the young offenders, and ramp-up the novel’s pace.

Her hair was long and thick, the color of brass, coarse and, I noted gratefully, in need of a hardy brushing. Her skin was sort of golden colored, and her face was round and full with strong cheekbones, a small rosebud mouth, thin eyebrows and unusually blond eyelashes. Her eyes were an odd shade of blue. There was something manufactured about that color. It was a shade of blue like a swimming pool in an ad for a tropical getaway. It was the color of mouthwash, toothpaste, toilet cleaner. My own eyes, I thought, were like shallow lake water, green, murky, full of slime and sand. Needless to say, I felt completely insulted and horrible about myself in the presence of this beautiful woman. Perhaps I should have honored my resentment and kept my distance, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be close to her, to get an intimate view of her features, how she breathed, what her face did when her mind was busy thinking.

Rebecca’s arrival quickens Eileen’s pulse and shifts the book into a higher gear, pushing the focus slightly away from Eileen and onto Rebecca and one particular inmate, Leonard Polk, incarcerated for murdering his father. Once this switch is established, we’re firmly in Patricia Highsmith territory. A strange plot is hatched, and Eileen, already playing a role in order to simply get by in a world that has deprived her of a stable identity, takes on yet another persona as she’s lured into a tragedy. The novel thereafter tears along as an impressive and accomplished thriller, hurtling towards a genuinely surprising set-piece finale at a delightfully grotty venue.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s crackling debut offers nothing remotely new. She throws all the old noir tropes in — seductive, dangerous femme fatale, gun, bleak, snow-muffled streets, dark small town secrets, an unpredictable antihero, etc. The dialogue occasionally clunks like a dropped pistol — I’m not sure someone toting a gun at someone might ever be believably moved to offer, “There, there,” for example. And the book is at times guilty of languishing too lugubriously in the mire of its carefully-orchestrated mood,

But Moshfegh does enough over 260 pages to keep you at the very least interested for the duration. Eileen is involving, assured, and only intermittently overwrought. It’s also surely a longshot for the Booker, but it’s icy, twisted, and intriguing fun, an impressive first novel by any yardstick, and a novel I’m hoping gets onto the shortlist at least.

 

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By |2016-08-01T17:48:22+00:00August 2nd, 2016|Categories: Book Reviews, Ottessa Moshfegh|Tags: , , , |13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. David August 2, 2016 at 11:43 am

    Lee, I very much liked the book as well. I take it from your expression of hope that it is chosen for the Booker short list indicates you liked it more than some of your seemingly more critical comments indicate, so I might just be quibbling here by taking them up. But let me give it a go and see what happens.

    I am glad I read the novel before I knew anything about it, particularly the often repeated claim that the book is a noir novel. As I read it I did not get that sense at all. I certainly don’t see anything in at least the first half of the novel that I would call noir even in retrospect. In fact, from reading a couple of interviews with Moshfegh, she says she did not set out to write a noir novel, has never read a noir novel, and she would not call it a noir novel. She also mentions having read people like Charles Bukowski. It strikes me that she is more in his neighbourhood than Highsmith’s.

    I wonder about the noir “tropes” (a word that always seems to me to be a polite way of saying “cliches”) you mention. First, the weather. When I think of a noir story I think of hot, humid summer nights or heavy rain, so if “snow-muffled streets” also counts then I have to wonder what weather doesn’t indicate noir. Second, the “unpredictable antihero”. Yes, she isn’t heroic and yes, because she is a peculiar woman it is hard to know what she might do, but for almost the entire novel she is not in anything like noir circumstances, so this just makes her a strange lead character like any other story with a strange lead character, not a trope of anything. So it seems to me you have padded the list of tropes a bit.

    But Moshfegh does say that she did intentionally use noir elements in the novel, but not only noir elements and not to create a noir story. She says:

    “In some ways, I felt that I was playing with genre, and in other ways I was abusing it…. The cliché of “Once upon a time…”; the coming of age story; the leaving home story; and also the dark thriller element of the “mysterious woman,” the crime story, the noir. You know, there’s a gun in the book. [Laughs.] Those elements became tools to build a different kind of story—the one I wanted to write—of what it’s like being a young woman when your role in your family and society doesn’t match up with who you really are.”

    So to focus on the noir elements and miss the others and to then try to see this as a noir novel rather than one that uses these elements from different genres to make something new and different out of them is to miss a large part of what she is doing in the book. Perhaps the fact that so many reviewers have commented on the noir elements in the book indicates she has been unsuccessful in incorporating them in making her “different kind of story” or maybe it means that the reviewers have clung to much to the easily identifiable familiar and not seen the collage or mash-up use of these elements.

    It is no surprise to me to read in one interview that was published a year ago that she was then reading “Endless Love” by Scott Spencer and she said, “it is blowing my mind”. Spencer wrote the novel in an attempt to reclaim the romance novel for literary writers from its abuse at the hands of pulp fiction writers. For his effort he was rewarded with a well deserved National Book Award nomination and punished with an undeserved pair of unwatchable movie adaptations that takes out all that was good in his book and dumps the story back in the world of superficial pulp. But I can easily see how Moshfegh with her own interest in taking elements from established genres and reworking them to other ends might be captivated by Spencer’s book. Let’s just hope when Hollywood makes the movie of Eileen (Scott Rudin has bought the film rights) they don’t screw it up like they did for “Endless Love”. Twice.

  2. Lee Monks August 2, 2016 at 12:16 pm

    Thanks David. If my comments re: noir elements (I have read the interview in which she refutes the noir claim: that doesn’t mean it isn’t a noir novel, as I saw it. It just means it was unintentional. Or, should I say, the second half of the novel, which read so akin to quite a few Highsmith novels, as well as Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett et al as to make the ‘intentional’ distinction merely of surely only passing interest to the prospective reader.) seemed critical that wasn’t the intention. Rather, despite making use of those elements (and the sentences felt particularly Highsmith for the last 100 pages or so) that we’ve seen time and again, Moshfegh still manages to freshen them up enough to produce a compelling and interesting piece of work. I have recommended the book many times and will continue to do so. Just to emphasise my positivity about the book.

    To me noir is about amalgamating certain elements to create a fraught and oppressive atmosphere. Freezing temperatures and snow, when we look at that element in juxtaposition with Eileen’s character and the enfolding drama, compound the other overt suggestions of bleak inhospitality and alienation (to me). If the weather is not an issue, it’s not an issue. Moshfegh makes sure it is: countless references to icicles, snow, fogged breath, dangerous roads. None of them subtle; all of them parallel to the human story underway. Plenty of rain as well, while we’re on the subject.

    I did ‘see the collage/mash-up’ nature of the book, and found it interesting: I liked the way the book changed pace and emphasis roughly halfway, and interweaved character elements with thriller pacing. But it is still, in my mind, a noir novel, and I can’t be persuaded otherwise. It doesn’t start out as one, but it unmistakably becomes one. And it doesn’t remotely affect my appreciation of Eileen.

  3. Lee Monks August 2, 2016 at 12:21 pm

    PS if Moshfegh is conscious of using noir elements ‘but not a noir story’ that seems a little disingenuous on her part, particularly with that second half of the book still very clear in my mind. I loved it; but it’s classic noir. And the designers of the book jacket seem to agree.

  4. Trevor Berrett August 2, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    I’ve not read this yet, but it sounds like Moshfegh might be following the bad example of, off the top of my head, Margaret Atwood and Emily St. John Mandel.

    Atwood eschewed the science fiction label for years, preferring the term “speculative fiction,” though she’s written several books that are solidly within (that don’t even approach the borders of) the realm of traditional science fiction.

    Emily St. John Mandel touted her opinion that Station Eleven was not science fiction but literary fiction (whatever that term means when not applied by the marketing team), which suggests an attempt to be taken seriously by critics she wanted to please but also suggests an ignorant view of science fiction and of the many great writers that actually wrote various forms of Station Eleven over the decades.

    I’m a fan of some of Atwood’s science fiction and I liked Station Eleven a lot, but these books did not break new ground in using science fiction tropes (which is not the same as a cliché) to explore the human condition, however wonderfully they did just that. Authors who wish to avoid classification for critical or economic reasons merely perpetuate the problems they are hoping to avoid, though sadly it seems to have worked for them where it doesn’t work for many other — greater — authors who do not eschew their traditions while broadening what those traditions can do.

    Is something similar to all that going on here with Moshfegh? It sounds like it, but I can’t wait to read the book, whatever its classification.

  5. David August 2, 2016 at 6:40 pm

    Lee, I don’t think there is anything disingenuous about her claiming to use elements of noir stories while saying hers is not a noir story. The fact that those elements do not even appear until the final part of the book is one reason to think she really is right that she is not trying to write a noir story. I think of something like how “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” uses the plot and characters of “Hamlet”, yet it is a very different kind of play than Hamlet is. Of course, Moshfegh is not trying to do anything like what Stoppard did, but it still makes the point that consciously using the elements of one type of story does not make it that type of story. Most noir stories involve some sort of mystery, but “Eileen” does not. Most noir stories have us concerned at some point for the wellbeing of the (anti)hero, but with “Eileen” the narrative structure of “Once Upon A Time…” eliminates that element. This novel is the story of how Eileen made her escape from this early life, so the noir-ish elements are brought in in service of that. They could even be seen as helping to illustrate how as an older woman she remembers the events of her youth. Like I said, maybe she does not so it successfully, but I don’t see why using some noir elements in part of the story means it must be a noir novel. As for the jacket cover, that’s just marketing so I put no weight on it. But despite that, I would note that there have been several other covers, including some very non-noir ones.

    Trevor, As you might guess, I don’t think your cautionary examples are what is going on for Moshfegh. It would be rather odd for someone who freely admits she has never even read a noir novel to decide to write one and then add that she wants to expand the boundaries of what noir is. Odd and quite presumptuous too. So, again, I don’t see a reason to doubt her sincerity in explaining what she was trying to do. If the result is something that does not add something new to the noir genre that is probably because that isn’t what she was aiming at doing. In defense of Atwood, I can understand why an author might find it limiting to have their work viewed through a well-worn lens of a defined genre like science fiction rather than just be judged on the individual merits of the particular book. Pigeonholing is handy for marketing books and for oversimplified reviews, but it can be very misleading. I remember when I first read Ray Bradbury being surprised he was classified as science fiction, not because their were not clear science fiction elements to his stories but because they so often seemed incidental rather than definitive of the story he was telling. Readers don’t always pay close attention to the first few pages of “Lord of the Flies”, but if they do they will see that it is science fiction, too. Well, at least that is where science fiction elements are clearly present. But don’t let that get in the way of the rest of the story. Similarly, when you read “Eileen” don’t let expectations of what could be counted as noir aspects of the story get in the way of your read, especially in the first two thirds of it where you won’t find them at all.

  6. Trevor Berrett August 2, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    I’m more and more intrigued, David. I’ll read it with an open mind and try to articulate here my own conclusions!

  7. Lee Monks August 3, 2016 at 4:19 am

    Trevor: there may well be something in your suggestion. I might also mention Ishiguro V Le Guin here – strange spats at the permeable borders of genre. Mandel’s book ended up occupying an odd position, really: sci-fi reluctant to bear that tag; literary fiction with ‘sci-fi elements’. Moshfegh may well be conscious of a need to deflect noir ideas (despite protesting perhaps a little too much) lest Eileen end up on the ‘crime’ shelves or unfairly derided as ‘second tier’. I’m not sure it matters so much: it’s a very well-written character study that becomes something very synonymous with some fine noir novels I’ve read, the incidentals of which I will avoid recounting as I don’t want to spoil where Eileen goes and ends up. But it’s certainly interesting territory.

    David: I’ll tell you what. I’m writing a new novel. Let’s call it ‘Mad Bill’. I’m about 130 pages in. Bill is a loner who seems to have strange ideas about what passes as normal, so emotionally warped has his life been. I’m thinking about introducing a big spaceship, and a few aliens. I think I can make it work, but I’m worried people might think it’s sci-fi. By the way, I’ve never read a sci-fi novel, but I’ve watched a few films with weird space stuff in them.

  8. Lee Monks August 3, 2016 at 4:32 am

    PS, David: I also take issue, on reflection, with your suggestion that the first part of the book is in no way noirish. The setup really is redolent of Cain, Thompson et al, in that we have a lachrymose loner off at the margins offering up her curious speculations, with little apparent opportunity at redemption, just waiting for someone or something to get her out of bleak circumstances. Enter a femme fatale figure straight out of Red Harvest…are we supposed to excuse the latter half as less informative of what this book is, just to exempt it from inevitable noir considerations? Is a finale less important than a beginning? I firmly believe that Moshfegh has written a fine noir novel, so has failed, in my mind, to eschew such connotations. Does it matter?

  9. David August 3, 2016 at 8:39 am

    Lee, Instead of talking about “Mad Bill”, how about “Fargo”? In the second season of the series “Fargo” a UFO appears very briefly twice, once near the start of the series and once near the end. Does that make the series count as science fiction? If so then genre classification seems so misleading as to be virtually meaningless. I would say the same for calling “Lord of the Flies” science fiction or even a lot of Ray Bradbury stories.

    As for the new reflection that the early part of the novel seems noir now as well, I would say that this is the danger of pigeonholing. It didn’t read to me as noir and it’s only on reflection after seeing the ending as noir that you read this back into the beginning. But unless you want to count Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” or Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From Underground” as noir, I don’t see why Eileen is any more a noir character than Gregor Samsa or the Underground Man.

    We seem to have read different books, but at least we both liked what we read. I’ll take that. I hope the Booker committee does too.

  10. Lee Monks August 3, 2016 at 10:15 am

    David: it’s all about context. Tropes tend to be used emphatically or ironically. Everything about the opening part of Eileen – which I am of course considering as part of a totality – sets the mood and tone and gestalt which, were it completely different from the entirely noir second half, would make the book a failure. In considering the book a success – as we both do – you can’t realistically separate the two halves without suggesting Moshfegh is unsuccessful. Unless, of course, you don’t feel any of the book is noir…

    If you throw a recently-procured gun into a volatile scenario with a hint of sex and a mysterious aggressor…ah, each to their own. We’re both fans ultimately.

  11. Lee Monks August 3, 2016 at 10:21 am

    PS I don’t think Eileen does enough artistically to shrug of the potency of the ‘noir elements’ Moshfegh suggests she wanted to use for alternate means. I think it makes extremely good and pervasive use of them. I think it’s an excellent debut, but it doesn’t really transcend genre, for me, like a Dostoevsky or a Kafka. Such comparisons are a stretch, I think.

  12. David September 13, 2016 at 10:01 am

    The Booker shortlist is out this morning and Eileen is on it. Congratulations to Ottessa Moshfegh!

  13. Lee Monks September 13, 2016 at 11:22 am

    Indeed!

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