Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel Eileen is the darkest coming of age tale I have ever read. Excuse me, it’s hardly that, but you try to tie a ribbon around a burp, or wrap copper wire around a springtail (collembola – distant cousin of a gnat).
Eileen follows the life of a painfully plain 24-year-old girl working in a prison and serving as nursemaid for an alcoholic father. Eileen is an introvert with no self esteem, reinforced by a verbally abusive father, and her repellent environment at work. The narrator is the much older Eileen, after having escaped her hellish life.
The tone of the narrator is detached. The writing is delightful, liberating, and compelling despite the grim subject matter. Hardly any character is anything other than despicable and or boring. Also, it is odd, yet fitting that Eileen’s intellectual development superceded her emotional development. Aint we all like that?
After reading the book in two sittings (more like reclinings, fascinated and perplexed all the while as to why I was enthralled with the book, I sought out reviews for insight. The professional reviewers from the Times, the Paris Review, and , well, all the ones Sarah did not mention but we know she reads (Sarah Palin, of course) – rave about the work. All of the reviews I read shared my enthusiasm for the writing and went on to summarize the plot – some even analyzing the characters circumstances.
Not satisfied that any of the reviews did more than scratch the surface, I went to bookseller’s websites to read reader reviews. Most reader reviews focused on the character of the protagonist, and those reviewers hated her. There were a few with well thought-out perspectives on the work. Some written enviably clearly and without the hubris of the literary reviews like “We look forward to Ms. Moshfegh’s maturation and her future work,” or “…astounding First Novel.” I enjoyed those reviews who saw well above the plot and characters. Nevertheless, I long to hear the reviewers who see the “giftedness” in Moshfegh’s work to describe more specifically the brilliance.
Einstein, Nietzsche, and Freud all praised Fyodor Dostoyevski’s “Brothers Karamozov” as one of the greatest works of literature probing the human psyche. So I read the book. I think there is a complicated relationship of the characters and the internal workings of everyone’s mind. So on some level I “get it.” I went on to fall in love with Dostoyevski’s Short Stories, most of them dark, yet, oddly, narrated in a mood something short of merriment; yes, even those told by tortured souls.
The mental minutia examined by the protagonist in Dostoyevski’s Notes from the Underground along with his excruciating insecurities reveals those unspoken thoughts no one really remembers thinking, yet after reading, might remember similar thoughts during the process of growing up.
Most great writers develop an intimate bond with their readers sharing innermost thoughts. So many odd, outlandish, original voices tell worlds of fabulous stories and give us all connections to “other minds.”
I think it is a well accepted notion that personal growth is something to be accomplished alone. I remember hearing “only in solitude does a soul find space to grow.”
Ottessa Moshfegh’s character, Eileen, lives an interior existence. The outer world she inhabits forces her deeper into herself. Her closest relative stays in a stupor, arising out of it only to hurl insults at her. She has no friends, nor pets, save a dead mouse in her exhaust-spewing automobile glove compartment. At work there is little humanity except suffering. Her memories are of awkwardness and a mother and sister who hated her. Home and work pile drive her deep into herself. The nonentity that she is, forces her to only identity with bodily fluids and functions. There is no lower platform upon which to form an identity.
If you read this gravity defying dark (and I hesitate to call it a comedy) comedy, you might just burst out laughing at some low point of described pathetic human action and immediately feel guilty or mean spirited. The book has you in control, though the author and Eileen herself won’t be present to gloat.
All the reviewers I’ve read, including my introduction to this work in a radio interview by Scott Simon of Ottessa Moshfegh, refer to actions by Eileen and an accomplice as a “crime.”
I call it heroism.
I shall give you a rest now, but the tortured soul’s resilience and quite possibly it’s Superiority over all conscious thought shall be on my mind, independent of my proclivity to over state and drool, drizzle, and pose as some pedantic nincompoop.