EileenI first attempted to read this novel by Ottessa Moshfegh several months ago and gave up in boredom after about 60 pages. I had been led to expect a thriller, something in the vein of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell. Although I can see where that idea came from, most of Eileen is a straightforward character study of a not very pleasant person. The story I expected doesn’t turn up until the last few chapters.

When this turned up on the Man Booker longlist, I knew I needed to give it another try so I could better participate in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Jury deliberations. I’m happy to say that going into it expecting a slow-moving character study helped me this time, and I liked it a lot more. It’s still not a favorite, though, and I’d not be sorry to see better books on the shortlist. (This is a theme for my Booker reading this year.)

Now in her 70s, Eileen narrates a pivotal week from her early 20s, the week she calls “my last days as that angry little Eileen.” Angry little Eileen lived alone with her alcoholic father, worked in a prison for juvenile boys, had no friends to speak of, and obsessed over one of the prison guards, going so far as to park at his house and watch his movements. Her home is unkempt and lonely, as is she. She takes poor care of herself, rarely eating and relying on laxatives to keep her bowels moving. (There’s a lot of talk about bowels and other bodily functions.)

Eileen is not at all likable, nor is she deliciously unlikable like the narrator of A Kind of IntimacyShe’s dull and more than a little bit gross. In a way, her frankness is refreshing, but I never found it enjoyable. It was endurable, and I was curious as to how she would break away. The fact that it’s clear she did was what kept me reading.

I don’t want to dwell much on the event that snaps her out of her situation, lest I spoil the shocks, but I’ll say that I did find the final chapters gripping. I also appreciated the way the most overtly dramatic story is put in the background as Eileen’s story of getting out is foregrounded. The big cataclysm is important in the novel because of the effect it has on Eileen, how it teaches her that she is capable of something and pushes her to get past the boundaries she’s set for herself. The ending is weirdly liberating, despite being dark, dark, dark.

Even though this was better the second time around (by which I mean it was finishable), I wonder if it would have been better as a short story. It’s possible that the many pages of characterization were necessary for the final chapters to achieve their impact. Seeing Eileen shed an identity we’d barely gotten to know might not mean much. But the development gets tedious, and it’s not hard to see what sort of person Eileen is from the first couple of chapters. A shorter version that still found a way to demonstrate what a rut she was in would probably have kept me reading the first time.

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16 Responses to Eileen

  1. Annabel (gaskella) says:

    Interesting! This one is on my pile…

  2. Bellezza says:

    The more from the long lost that I read, the farther this one falls in my appreciation of it. But, I did like a victorious conclusion, that she was able to break away as you said. I like a story of u,to ate courage.

    • Bellezza says:

      For goodness sake, “ultimate” courage, not the jumble my iPad put instead.

    • Teresa says:

      Given how strong the ending is, I wonder if the impact will wear off over time. It’s the kind of book that I’m likely to put down feeling breathless over those last chapters, which make it easy to forget the tedium of the early ones.

  3. Elle says:

    Oh, it’s interesting that you thought this might have worked better as a short story. It’s a pretty succinct novel as it is, but I think that would have been really interesting – it has that incendiary wind-up and ending that good short stories sometimes have. I quite liked how dull and gross Eileen was. Unlikeable characters tend to be fascinating and charismatic; it’s rare for an author to get so embroiled in the banal unpleasantnesses. That’s partly why all the bowel/body image stuff was so interesting to me, because when people try to control their bodies, it often does create some disgusting results (bulimia’s side effects ain’t pretty.)

    • Teresa says:

      I very often love books with unlikable characters, but this wasn’t one of them. The interesting thing here is that I did sort of end up rooting for Eileen because the present-day narration provides a sense that she has more potential than she’s showing. I appreciated that about it. She’s not evil, just messed up. Maybe the body stuff was also a way of showing that, making readers feel disgust with her even though she hasn’t exactly done anything wrong.

      • Elle says:

        Mm, that’s a thought. I was mostly interested in how Oshfegh shone a light on that shame and obsessiveness; many authors wouldn’t have gone there.

  4. I liked it a lot. Eileen is kind of repulsive but I found her completely intriguing!

  5. Deb says:

    I think I mentioned that I was surprised to see this on the long list because I really didn’t think it rose to that level. I think I said that Eileen reminded me of the narrator of Richard Ford’s CANADA: a young person whose life is changed irrevocably by the decisions and actions of another. CANADA was much better though.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, I remember you saying that, Deb. So far, I haven’t found anything on the longlist that rises to prize-worthy level, but all of the books seem to be trying to do something interesting.

  6. This is the story of Eileen. Or really it’s Eileen’s story; it’s a story Eileen tells us, a story we are led to believe. But it’s not always clear how much is believable, or how trustworthy Eileen really is. Thank you.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s interesting. I’m almost always slightly suspicious of first-person narrators, but it never occurred to me that Eileen wasn’t being trustworthy. Maybe that’s another function of the bowel talk. Frankness there makes her seem honest all the way around.

  7. Yeah, I glanced at this one and quickly decided it wasn’t going to be my thing. I’m glad you got through it this time — well done you for giving it another shot! You are a dedicated reader, madam!

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t think this is your thing at all. It just plods along for quite a while–too long for my tastes. But at least now I know where it was headed!

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