I 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 Intimacy. She’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.