Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Friday, February 17, 2017


I'd been hungry to read EILEEN, Ottessa Moshfegh's first novel that competed with DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. I'd already read the New York Times' tantalizing review: "Through Eileen," Lily King writes, "Moshfegh is exploring a woman’s relationship to her body: the disconnection, the cultural claims, the male prerogative." I was seduced by King's descriptions, which paint Moshfegh as a feminist, and her protagonist, Eileen, as a pioneer, a woman venturing into the unknown realms of her own capacity.

What King glossed over was the gross intimacy of the book, the grotesque confessions at every turn, and the narrator's relentlessly described proclivities for the debased and the disturbing. EILEEN is the story of a woman disgusted with herself, revolted by her life, sickened by her job. Everything disgusts her, it seems: her co-workers, who she imagines to be lesbians. Her father, who lies drunk in the house all day and night. Most of all, though, Eileen hates herself: her breasts, the unexplored "caverns" between her legs, the slime-sludge color of her eyes. This narrator is writing from a place of maturity, looking back at her 24-year-old self with pity, shame—and perhaps a slant of amusement.

EILEEN spans several weeks in the life of its namesake, who floats from work to the liquor store to home in her father's beat-up Dodge. She watches the world through eyes hardened by hate. She shoplifts compulsively, touches herself at work, and uses the bathroom without washing her hands. Some of the Moshfegh's lines horrify, and that, I suspect, is the point—this is a book that shocks and awes. This is a book about agency and passivity, action and inaction, but it's also a book about being a woman - in any age. What I both hated and loved about this story was that I could see myself in it: the dirty nuances, the graphic revelations—these belong to Eileen, to Moshfegh, and to me.

The book's dramatic finale left me underwhelmed—especially since the Boston Globe claims that it "culminates in a dynamite ending." In fact, as King writes, "For a while we hang on to the hope that more will be revealed about her...that somehow the gun-blood-death culmination will feel as fresh and particular as the first part of the novel. And then we have to let those hopes go."

Ultimately, EILEEN is a bold, brave book—a book not for the faint-hearted, the squeamish. Not a book, I think, for my mother. If you ate up SMILLA'S SENSE OF SNOW or THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, you'll be drawn, I think, to EILEEN—she's a similar narrator, after all: mannish sensibilities, moments of unreliability, and a raw, confessional voice that forces you, grimacing, on.