Sometimes, working in a bookstore can be tough. Before you roll you eyes and picture yourself buried in your favorite novel while calling it “work,” let me explain.
First of all, there is so much more that bookstore employees do on a day to day basis than read books, but that’s another story all together.
What I want to talk about here is how reading things for a bookstore can… shall we say, “skew” your perspective. I’m always alternating between an uncorrected proof from a debut author to a book a publisher promises will be the next big thing to whatever has been heartily endorsed by the NYT, the Trib, or the neighborhood. To put it frankly, I read a lot of bad contemporary fiction.
That’s why I’m always surprised when I pick up something new–something hot off the presses–that is actually good! Well-written, convincing characters, a cleverly plotted novel: it’s like rediscovering a favorite TV show that you used to love, and realizing you didn’t finish all the episodes!
Eileen is the debut novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. The author’s name even works as character foil on the book jacket, where her full-throated and consonant-heavy letters pair against the stark black background and the even starker name of the novel: Eileen. Just Eileen.
So who is Eileen? What type of novel begins from first person, with the narrator describing themselves in their titular novel? There’s something deliciously narcissistic in these beginning pages. Within the first two pages, Moshfegh writes, “I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.”
From this point on, we’re aware that we’re both hearing about Eileen from Eileen all with the omniscience of a far more distant narrator. In fact, we discover that the older Eileen has, in many ways, become a different type of person, a different Eileen. The narrator mocks the younger Eileen for her self-hatred, her timidity, and her disgust all before we have the chance to assess her ourselves.
It’s a fascinating interplay of past and present, of insider and outsider. It reminded me that the most polemical part of writing novels is writing characters, something the great authors all knew too well. Within the immortality of Mrs. Dalloway, Madame Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, and Anna Karenina lies their brilliantly manifested mortality which, to be reductive, is merely an authorial device.
We enter novels to meet new people, see new places, encounter new circumstances; sometimes we forget that behind every event is the author’s hand. Behind every place is an author’s research. And behind every character, even the ones that jump off the page with vitality, is a writer thinking deeply about what makes a human human.
In Moshfegh’s novel, we see a woman who hates her home but can’t imagine a life beyond the one she lives. Her job is filled with corpulent shadow-women stuffing their wet mouths with candies and treats. Her relationship to her body is at best masochistic and at worst, a form of disenfranchised sadism. Meanwhile, her father emerges from his drunken stupors with meager offerings of love or abuse. Moshfegh seems to point out how similar these things can truly become when built on a rotten foundation.
Eileen is a great addition to the canon of wonderful profiles of characters. Eileen is not likeable or unlikeable. Her actions are mysterious and at the same time, uncannily recognizable. There is something about Eileen that is within us all. We spend the majority of the novel deciding if we relate to her angels or her demons.
But that’s the pleasure of this novel. There is no black and white (despite the cover’s starkness). Eileen grows beyond the book into something so complicated and divisive, we can’t help but root for her.
There’s a mystery and a dangerous episode at the heart of the drama which keeps the story from turning too navel-gazey. It’s a delicious read, with every page implicating you a little more, a little more. The ending is fantastic. It’s the type of ending that seems more like a beginning of something much greater.
Moshfegh is an impressive talent to watch. Her debut has eclipsed most of the debuts–and even most of the fiction–I have read this year. Eileen reminded me why I keep reading contemporary fiction. Every once in a great while, a book is truly contemporary.