Eileen by Ottesa Moshfegh has sentences and passages that are quite simply breathtaking in their perfection. One after the other her words tantalise and tease. She never says too much, nor too little, they are just perfect. Poisonous, cutting, funny, odious, grotesque, dangerous, plain, scary – her writing is marvellous. In just a few sentences in the books’ opening paragraph we know Eileen
You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange, young and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved figures, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window. The sunlight in the morning illuminated the thin down on my face, which I tried to cover with pressed powder, a shade too pink for my wan complexion. I was thin, my figure was jagged, my movements pointy and hesitant, my posture stiff. The terrain of my face was heavy with soft, rumbling acne scars blurring whatever delight or madness lay beneath that cold and deadly New England exterior. If I’d worn glasses I could have passed for smart, but I was too impatient to be truly smart. …. I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life – the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.
Eileen is like no other heroine or hero. She lives with her mentally unstable, alcoholic father, a retired policeman, in a filthy house that neither clean. She eats little of anything, biscuits or sweets mainly, and embraces her thinness. She is obsessed with her bowels and avoids washing. She is twenty four, a virgin, and works as a clerk in a correctional facility for teenage boys. She is plain, small-breasted and hates her body which she hides under layers of clothes.
This is Eileen until she meets Rebecca who changes everything. Rebecca, who Eileen felt on meeting, must, like Doris Day – live in a charmed world of fluffy pillows and golden sunshine – and instantly hated her. Yet within minutes of actually talking to Rebecca Eileen discovers her soul mate, or, as Rebecca puts it, her partner in crime, and the books unexpected twist begins.
Eileen is so perfect a novel that it was an almost emotional disappointment when Moshfegh’s ending fails to ring true. Here was Eileen and Rebecca, not as a darker and perverse take on Thelma and Louise or as a sapphic romance like Carol mashed with Bound, but as ineptitude. It is almost as if having brought the reader brilliantly up to this point that there was pressure to bring the story to an end or to find a twist that sashayed nicely into Eileen’s conclusion.
Everything so far has been flawless, with Eileen’s thoughts on life and its banalities leading us inextricably to her meeting with Rebecca and from there we anticipated, deliciously, trouble ahead. So it was doubly disappointing that when that ‘trouble’ arrives it is caused not be wickedness but by uncharacteristic silliness on the part of our heroines. As a result Eileen, whilst not unravelling, is now imperfect and flawed. as if, like her creations, Moshfegh had messed up, not a lot, but enough.
Eileen is still an extraordinarily, and at times, beautifully revolting story, that seeps into your consciousness like a strong whisky, nulling and stimulating, while sowing the seeds of corruption. Yet it could and should have been a truly brilliant novel and the fact that it falls short lies in part with Rebecca, who, like her creator, steps out of line in a way that disappoints rather than excites – leaving the reader feeling flat when we should have been bubbling with anticipation and excitement. So much so that even Eileen cannot hide her disappointment at the turn of events.
I could have told her she was crazy, that I wanted nothing to do with her, that she ought to be committed, but I was so hurt, so dismayed by her scheme to seduce me into being some sort of accomplice that I failed to muster any cutting words or phrases, “Good luck.” might have been enough, I suppose.
A remarkable, brilliant, but flawed masterpiece.
© Nigel Wingrove 2017
EILEEN by Ottessa Moshfegh is published by Viking Books