By Ottessa Moshfegh
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Well, the old backlash seems to have hit Ottessa Moshfegh, and if you take it from me, that's a shame. Of course, it might be inevitable: book gets great reviews, people read it and come away disappointed, they wonder what all the hype was about, and all of a sudden you've got a pile of one- and two-star reviews on Goodreads. Course, Eileen isn't for everyone. The book's set in a small Massachusetts town known only as X-Ville, narrated by a frankly unlikeable character who wallows in self-pity, who treats the people around her as either detestable or angelic with no middle ground, who at first fears and then condescends to her alcoholic father, a retired cop who hallucinates about "hoodlums" and "mobsters" trying to kill him and who heaps verbal abuse upon his daughter. I can understand why someone wouldn't want to live in Eileen's world.
Another part of the backlash might be due to poor marketing, which also afflicted Amelia Gray's 2012 novel Threats. Like Threats, Eileen's jacket flap wants us to believe it's the next great thriller, even going as far as to compare the novel's twist to Hitchcock. No doubt, the book takes a turn toward the criminal. Eileen works as a secretary for a boys' prison, befriends new employee Rebecca, and gets caught up in Rebecca's intense interest in a murder case. But Moshfegh spends more time creating Eileen's world and her fascinating relationship with Rebecca, which sits at the center of this. It's incredible to see how much Eileen projects onto Rebecca, how she invents this savior to lift her out of the small-town malaise, and a lot of that's because of how unsparing Moshfegh is in embodying Eileen's mental state. Whatever you might say about her level of sympathy, she feels so real that her perceptions seem to eclipse the real world. She's one of the least reliable narrators I've read this year, since you get zero alternatives to her perspective and have to sort of wonder if her life's as bad as she makes it out to be. Very little time is spent on the crime itself; far more is spent on building the character and her world. This is also a characteristic of Moshfegh's terrific short stories, and while I don't mind it, you should go in aware that this isn't a zippy crime novel.
I'll admit this comes at a bit of a price, though. Sometimes the wallowing blasts so far over-the-top that Moshfegh seems to condescend more than empathize (take for instance "I ran up to the attic, where I stayed for the rest of the night. Nobody missed me" on page 65), although she buys this right to do so by narrating from the perspective of an older Eileen, one who seems to have mostly gotten her life straightened out, although she maintains some of her younger self's bitterness. Moshfegh also has the frustrating habit of reiterating information, which doesn't strike me as much more than padding. Yet Moshfegh's dry humor and incredible characterization makes up for these defects. Eileen's world isn't a happy one, but it's so well-rendered that it's worth spending some time in just the same.
Out of 10: 8.8