Eileen. Otessa Moshfegh.

Moshfegh, Otessa. Eileen. Penguin, New York, 2015. Electronic version retrieved for Kindle. F; 1/16.

Here’s another intriguing and initially exciting novel that eventually lacked… I’ll call it effective dramatic pace… for me. I read an awful lot of novels with fantastic promise that somehow get confounded in the very complicated business of bringing major fiction in for a smooth landing. No lack of literary jet thrust in this one, maybe just a still slightly unsure hand on the joystick.

Eileen bemoans her life as a girl nerd in a 1960s small New England town. We see her in retrospect from the point of view of a happier and more stable contemporary older adult self who has obviously escaped the young Eileen’s nightmare. At 24, she is a relentlessly self-contemptuous social misfit (but not really as helpless and unattractive as she thinks, our reality-testing elderly narrator cautions us), cringing in the filthy mess of a partially-heated family home with her widower father who is an end-stage alcoholic retired cop, cruelly critical of his daughter whenever he wakes up from his stupor. Eileen sleeps in the freezing attic and works in a prison for boys.

This retrospective self-description is so painfully accurate I have to believe this author deeply gets what “different” means. She has a gift for description, and for description of alienation. Putting young Eileen in small-town New England in the 1960s ups the voltage of opprobrium, which was socially fatal at that time but now, in the world the author is writing in, is a hundred times less painful. Today effectively dissing and behaving radically counter to whatever you’re alienated from is considered cool and courageous. This is a nice sleight-of-hand for a young female author who came of age in small-town New England post-2000 herself. Recalling my youth in the 1960s I found Eileen’s concept of her paranoid outre self ringing true. I wasn’t as alienated as Eileen, but I knew nobody understood me. And I guess it’s the special solipsism of that stage of life not to see that that applies to everyone, or that maybe it should.

At any rate as Eileen’s story unfolds we are led to wonder as her escape from social and physical nightmare is heavily foreshadowed: How is she going to do it?  Well, into Eileen’s workplace walks red-haired Harvard-grad slightly older Rebecca, everything poor Eileen isn’t and wants to be: sexy, socially apt, rich; a capable woman. It looks like Rebecca might be the first-class ticket out of Dodge Eileen has been longing for. Will she teach our helpless nerd what she needs to know? Become her lover?

My coherence problem started subtly in the next section of the story, where while it sounded like Eileen was headed for New York the next morning, a variety of events that didn’t seem important to the plot kept delaying things, and for me the momentum bogged down for no obvious reason. It was Christmas. Eileen eventually got dolled up in her mother’s clothes  on Christmas Eve and went over to have drinks with Rebecca, high on the prospect of a classy evening and the impossible dream: a friend! And what a friend. When Eileen arrives at Rebecca’s imagining the relationship developing into something wonderful, we tumble into big-surprise plot twists. But picky easily-bored I had been kept waiting too long.

The story’s ending seemed to turn awkward, as if the last few pages of a crime thriller had been grafted onto the powerful characterization and narrative I’d been experiencing but which had started to try my patience. It reminded me of Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending where potential satisfaction seemed to scatter in an unexpected twister tornado finale.

Otessa Moshfegh looks to me like a successful young writer with a spectacular dark side and a knack for ambiguous moral irony. I downloaded Eileen after reading Bettering Myself, a disturbing short story of hers in the New Yorker. I’m guessing (never having tried) that it’s geometrically harder to write a successful novel than a successful short story. A lot of good writers seem to need to launch into the air currents a few times before they get good at negotiating the turbulence. Still lots of time for Moshfegh to master the controls. 7.8/9.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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