My happiness is so great that Eileen did not win the Man Booker prize that I am breaking a rule of criticism to make that the lead of this review. I would not have read this book without its inclusion in that prize’s conversation; it sounded the most interesting of all the shortlisted works. However, in this case the marketing is designed to bamboozle us, if not lead us down some unpleasant rabbit hole. Learn from my mistakes, and don’t be fooled.
Every creative endeavour has a message. It can be as simple as a toddler’s scribble, or as complex as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Whether you are attempting to tell the history of a religion, or showing off your ability to hold a crayon, every work of art demands engagement of the viewer. Works of fiction exist because they are the best way we’ve yet discovered of entering into the thoughts of another person. To read a book from someone else’s point of view is to walk in their shoes for a while. It is thrilling stuff, especially when that enables us to have a truly unusual set of experiences. Those we experience in Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen are sour at best, and it’s difficult to justify the ride.
The narration is done in the style of Charles Portis’ True Grit, where an older woman has finally sat down to tell the most important story of her life. As it is with Mattie’s, Eileen’s narration is full of asides, exposition, and examples of her superiority to the reader. But whereas Mattie was on a quest for revenge and boasting about it, Eileen is on one of self-actualisation combined with self-loathing that manifests in a terrible need to control how everyone sees her. It is apparent from the start she is going to take some incredibly degrading steps to obtain it.
The misery of Eileen’s life is depicted in such thorough detail that it’s repulsive. It’s December 1964, she is twenty-four and lives alone with her alcoholic father in a house which hasn’t been cared for since her mother died. He is barely able to function, so she is his caretaker, enabler, and resentful child, all in one.
I lathered up the cream and shaved him right there in the kitchen, standing over the sink of dirty dishes, a salad bowl full of cigar ash, moldy bits of bread green as pennies here and there. It may not sound all that bad to you, but it was pretty grim living there. My father’s moods and explosions were exhausting. He was so often upset. And I was always afraid of displeasing him by accident, or else I was so angry that I would try to displease him deliberately.
Her father is a retired cop, so whenever he wanders the town in one of his drunken rages he is simply picked up and returned home. The rest of the misery is self-inflicted. Like a spoiled brat resentful at doing their fair share of the chores, Eileen refuses to do even the most minor acts of self-care. Their house hasn’t been cleaned, much less tidied, since her mother’s death. And Eileen’s resentment at her life in this house has shades of Shirley Jackson, if Merricat (the narrator of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, who meticulously detailed her trips outside her home) had taken the positive pleasure in detailing the work necessary to have an eating disorder.
With the laxatives, my movements were 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 it to breach the rim of the toilet bowl. In those cases I stood up to flush, dizzy and sweaty and cold, then lay down while the world seemed to revolve around me. Those were good times. Empty and spent and light as air, I lay at rest, silent, flying in circles, my heart dancing, my mind blank.
The book has been marketed as a thriller, but that is not strictly true. There is no action, so to speak, until the final forty-five pages of the book. The rest of it is setting the scene, with plenty of passages such as the one above for the complete sensory experience. This is Eileen’s big chance to explain how she was able to escape her awful life, with loud hints of how she spent the intervening fifty years. But she spends an inordinate amount of time dwelling on her body; the passage quoted is an excerpt from a page and a half about her bowel movements, and that’s far from the only occurrence of such disgusting detail in the book.
When the story begins, Eileen works at the local juvenile prison as an unappreciated member of the administrative team. It’s the only thing worse than life at home with her father. She loathes her colleagues, except for the one who she stalks both in the workplace and around town. She admires the courage of the boys to get in trouble but is repelled by their physical presence, except when she spies on them masturbating in the isolation cells. She resents every moment of work she must do but takes weird amusement in twisting it for her own entertainment: to pass the time while monitoring prison visits, she has the delinquents’ mothers complete questionnaires of her own devising, which she reads and then throws away. A new member of staff joins, a woman named Rebecca who swiftly becomes the only friend Eileen has ever had. And under Rebecca’s influence, Eileen becomes entwined in the case of one of the boys in the prison, which is the catalyst for her changing her life.
Perhaps it is a spoiler to reveal that this young man is in prison after enduring significant sexual abuse. But the trend of using the rape of male children as plot motivation is becoming more visible in literary fiction. It was certainly what got the most attention of the equally lauded novel A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. To me, in Eileen, this comes from a place of contempt for the female body. In this context, a violation of a male child’s body is the worst thing imaginable. But the male child’s suffering – which is laid out in excruciating detail by his mother in the big finale – is only the motivation Eileen uses to change her life, nothing more. Is this meant to be a gender-bending twist, in using the suffering of a white male as the catalyst for female redemption? Or is the female body – certainly Eileen’s body, but also that of her sister, her hated work colleagues and those of the pathetic mothers in the prison – already so despicable no violation would be compelling enough? The opening sequence of the book sets the tone by imagining what we would think of Eileen’s body back then, had we seen it on a bus. It might work as the opening voiceover of a movie, but even as an introduction to an unreliable narrator “I was young and fine, average, I guess. But at the time I thought I was the worst – ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world” it’s difficult to take. This bullying introduction goes on for pages, mocking what we might have thought of her and how we would have been wrong.
To spend 260 pages inside this level of deluded contempt can’t help but curdle any real interest you have in the outcome. Moshfegh is a good enough writer to make this move quickly, but the excellent pacing doesn’t disguise the book’s major structural flaws. If this is – like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the only story the narrator is able to tell, and one that she has thought about for fifty years – why is such gushing detail devoted to the smells of her menstrual blood and the feelings of her breasts inside her shirt? Well, that is because of the contempt Eileen has for herself. And it’s clear through the book’s marketing that this comes from the author, not the character.
Moshfegh has spoken very frankly in multiple interviews (Guardian, September 2016; and Harper’s Bazaar, September 2016) about her purpose in writing the book. All she wanted was to be published, so she has cynically written a thriller. But it’s a thriller for literary fiction snobs who have never read actual crime fiction. As an exercise in cynicism this will take some beating. Genre fiction puts plot above style and, quite frankly, it should. Hundreds of pages signifying nothing but the contempt the writer has for everything except her intelligence is only fun for the writer. Why should anyone else pay good money for that?
Moshfegh blurs an important line when she exploits her own deeply personal physical experience, which she also discusses in interviews, for sensationalism. On its own, that does not have literary merit.
The immaturity of Eileen the character is reflected in her focus, as an elderly narrator looking back on her youth, on her bodily functions almost exclusively. There is no interest in emotions, either hers or anyone else’s. She observes people closely but in the delayed telling she can remember the color of the shoes they wore and how their fingernails were manicured. Think back to something important that happened when you were young. Do you remember what everyone present was wearing? Or was the most important thing how that event made you feel? It’s not a question of writerly attention to detail. It’s a question of knowing how to prioritise when telling a story. Eileen the narrator commits an appalling act and so many years later is still unable to admit its consequences for anyone else. Even after the passage of a lifetime, Eileen’s only knowledge is an immature denial that the lives and feelings of anyone else matter. It’s like listening to the young juveniles she supervises whine about being imprisoned – they are incapable of reflecting on why they might be locked up. There is no redemption in this book, which is fine, but there’s no insight either, which in a work of art means its purpose is unclear.
So the question then becomes how this book has been able to rise so high. By its end, Eileen the character has succeeded in conning herself into thinking that she is more interesting than she was in 1964 – that the life she built for herself through the dramatic act at the end of the book was that of a beautiful metamorphosis. But it’s really the act of someone bullied finding self-respect by turning into that which had bullied her.
I think this book’s success is due to two kinds of snobbery. Firstly, this is about the literary establishment’s attitude to genre fiction. When a literary writer dips into the realms of genre she immediately is nominated for awards in a way that significantly better writers like Vicki Hendricks and Sara Paretsky never have been. Many literary readers just don’t read genre fiction, and anyone who is pigeonholed as a genre writer finds most literary doors closed to them. So for someone with an MFA to announce that she is writing genre and then to receive literary praise for it demonstrates contempt, both by the writer and by the industry that has chosen to elevate this book. Why on earth can’t books which are good, regardless of their marketing silo, be considered for major international awards? Why is it necessary for the literary establishment to fight amongst itself in this boring and insulting way? Or is the publishing world pulling a long con in ensuring that only itself will remain the arbiter of public taste?
Secondly, Eileen is about contempt for the female body, and being trapped in a life only a woman could have. But, with its endless descriptions of ‘eating and evacuating’ and ‘monthly visitors’ and ‘I liked to languish in my own filth’, is anyone of any gender honestly meant to enjoy this? It would seem we are. It seems this level of self-hate and misogyny is being glamourized and applauded within the literary establishment without realising the full real-world impact of what that means. We are meant to forgive Eileen’s many flaws and relate to her escape from her terrible life. But instead we are kidnapped into a world of horrors, where daily life is boring, excruciating and repulsive. Was there no one on the prize committees who were able to see what this book is? Books like this prove that it’s not only the men who are perpetuating publishing’s notorious problems – women are just as responsible for recognising when content and character move into the territory of purely gratuitous or harmful depictions.
The fact that so many have swallowed this disgusting megillah is a despicable triumph. Without self-awareness and maturity nothing can evolve. That applies to individuals as well as establishments. The success of Eileen is a concerning throwback. Let’s all hope that going forward Moshfegh, the prize committees and the publishing industry do better.
Ottessa Moshfegh is a fiction writer from Boston. She was awarded the Plimpton Prize for her stories in The Paris Review and granted a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. One of the stories in this collection, ‘Slumming’, recently won an O. Henry Award. Her novel Eileen was awarded the 2016 Pen/Hemingway Award and is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Sarah Manvel lives in London and is looking for an agent for her own novel. She reviews films for criticsnotebook.com and can be found on twitter as @typewritersarah.
Eileen is published by Vintage.