Booker Longlist: Eileen: Otessa Moshfegh
It’s a dangerously risky strategy to make the eponymous protagonist of your novel someone deeply dislikeable, and in Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen doesn’t even like herself. The novel swivels between her interior and exterior life, daring us to find either of them appealing. Eileen lives with her father, an alcoholic sociopathic, paranoid ex-policeman, who carries a gun with him, even when he goes to the toilet. Externally, she is flat, wears a ‘death-mask’ works in a correction centre for boys, and observes herself and her co-workers with pitiless scrutiny. She constructs pointless yet curiously tender questionnaires for the mothers of these boys, stalks the most handsome of the guards, conducts a furtive sex life based on fantasy and reading her father’s pornography and seeks and finds a route out of her confinement.
The novel is told retrospectively, with Eileen reflecting on how she makes her escape. What does it take to release a woman in the 1960s from the torpor of a life of domesticity and secretarial work? asks Moshfegh. The answers are depressingly bleak: resistance – Eileen refuses to keep house for her father, they live in an antagonistic squalor exchanging only abuse, the possession of the gun and alcohol; violence – the moment for release comes 200 or so pages into this novel of 250 pages; and beauty – of a certain shiny variety that it seems almost impossible to place in this determinedly hostile novel.
Moshfegh creates a world that challenges our willingness to believe in it; a world so resolutely sordid that when glamour enters it in the form of Rebecca a psychologist at the centre, it enters in a form that seems cliched, disappointingly romantic, puzzlingly out of place. We keep expecting that Rebecca will be the catalyst for action, but in the end it is Eileen who navigates her own release, and Rebecca is no more potent than Randy the handsome guard (yes, really, Randy).
So what are its virtues? Whatever they are, I think they are slight and you have to be a very generous reader to find them. It’s a novel that seems, like its protagonist, addicted to its own repugnancy. It is written with a sort of shimmering disgust similar to that Eileen feels at her own sexuality. Eileen’s relationship with her own body is violent: she fantasises rape (the 'soulful' kind) she starves herself, celebrates her ‘ugliness’ by wearing her dead mother’s clothing and is obsessed by her bowel. The trouble is, it all gets a bit boring, to be in the presence of someone who so consistently dislikes herself.
There is something brave about being so consistently desolate perhaps. And Moshfegh’s voice is distinctly her own. She brings to her writing an occasional lyricism, that lifts the novel from being entirely awful. There are moments of tenderness, and clarity, even moments of stark beauty. But, if I'm honest, they didn’t really do it for me, in the end.
The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele