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?
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.