Eileen is a fabulous novel by Ottessa Moshfegh. It’s been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and I can see why.
What’s it all about?
The story is about Eileen, a 24-year-old woman working in a young offenders’ prison in 1950s X-Ville, a suburb in the east coast of America. Her mother has passed away and she cares for her father, an alcoholic, retired police officer who is less than a model parent.
Eileen struggles with her self-image (she uses laxatives to control her weight and obsesses about her appearance), lusts after the teenage boys in the institution in which she works (there’s a particularly uncomfortable display of voyeurism with a boy in solitary confinement), and wonders what will become of her life.
In walks Rebecca, a young, glamorous woman who is hired to develop an educational programme for the prison. Eileen is intimidated and intrigued by Rebecca in equal measure, and they soon bond on a drunken night in a bar. The pair’s relationship is complicated when Rebecca discovers one of the prisoners was the victim of extreme sexual abuse, and takes the retribution for such horrors into her own hands.
What’s interesting about it?
Well, quite a lot.
Firstly, we hear about the events above from Eileen 50 years after they occurred. She’s talking to us from the present about the past, and it can often be tricky (and wonderfully complex) to gauge how much hindsight influences the accuracy of her narration.
Clues about Eileen’s life after the events of the book are peppered throughout the narrative, giving glimpses of how her perspective has changed and where her life ended up when she left X-Ville (that’s not a spoiler, don’t worry). I would love to discover what happened to Eileen in 1960s and 1970s New York and think Moshfegh could offer a stunning exploration of that era by revisiting this character.
The origins of the book are also particularly interesting. Moshfegh has been very open about the fact she set out to write a bestseller and make money from this book. She bought a guide to writing a book, followed it and came out with Eileen.
In a brilliant, insightful interview with The Guardian, she candidly admitted:
I thought I’m going to do something bold. Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and … talented: did I say that already? I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.
Is it an insult or a revelation that a novel constructed in such a contrived way has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize? I think it’s a bit of both. I’m sure a lot of authors set out with the same motives as Moshfegh but aren’t so honest about them. I also think that a paint-by-numbers guide to writing can only do so much; Moshfegh’s intrinsic talent shines through and wasn’t cultivated simply through a self-help manual.
What did book club think?
We read this as our September book club read and loved it. It was one of the longest and most diverse book discussions we’ve ever had!
We discussed the impact of childhood experiences on adults; whether Eileen the character and Eileen the book are feminist; narrative structure and the reliability of the author; and lots more in between. (I had three hot drinks, granary toast and a slice of cake to sustain me through our two-hour meeting.)
Provoking debate is the mark of good art. It should inspire you, make you think and stay with you after you’ve experienced it. Eileen did all three and I think it’s a worthy contender for the Man Booker Prize.