Author Ottessa Moshfegh characterizes her first novel, Eileen, as her most conventional work yet. Her short stories have consistently focused on the grisly and downright disturbing. In contrast, Eileen Dunlop is a character primed for reader projection, a pitiful blend of crushing self-loathing and debilitating self-awareness. Moshfegh hinges the success of her book on Eileen’s ability to stealthily draw readers into the author’s sordid world.

Opening with Eileen’s thoroughly self-deprecating description of herself, the book goes to great lengths to establish its heroine as an unremarkable woman in a colorless world that she experiences vicariously: “I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography…” She describes herself as “nothing special” and “a waif, invisible.” But the narrative has the benefit of being told by Eileen in the present as she looks back on a particularly formative week in 1964. Hence, her acute self-awareness becomes all the more blatant under the scrutiny of revisited memories. All this makes her sound resoundingly ordinary for a Moshfegh character, but Eileen keeps a dead field mouse in her glove box, imagines icicles over her door piercing her body and “parting [her] nether regions like a glass dagger” and dreams of escaping her dreary hometown of “X-ville” for a vibrant life in New York.

Moshfegh herself is an interesting character, willing to talk about the business of being a professional writer in as brutal terms as she uses to describe her degenerate characters. In an essay for The Masters Review, she describes the act of writing Eileen: “I drank the Kool-Aid. I ate the shit. But my aim was to shit out new shit.” While the prevalence of the word shit is uncommon in most discussions of the nature of fiction writing, here Moshfegh hits on the artistic compromises required for financial and creative independence. On the genesis of Eileen, she writes, “I deliberately embraced the conventional narrative structure in order to reach the mainstream. I pictured a plausible audience of avid readers as people who live vicariously through books—in other words, people with boring lives. I considered the personal paradigm of a bored, imaginatively escapist person…who plumbs the depths of her own delusions and does something incredibly brave.”

Eileen is a splendid blend of this vicarious naivety and Moshfegh’s trademark sordidness. She lives in virtual squalor, catering to her abusive, perpetually drunk retired-cop father who is wont to wave his old pistol at passing school buses, yet she professes to be “a glutton for punishment.” She relishes all things awful in her life, to the point that she not only wills it there but seeks it out. Not that it’s hard to find. She works at a correctional facility for boys, fantasizes about having a relationship with Randy, a handsome guard, and even passes her weekends driving to his home only to sit and look and imagine being a more outgoing, sexual woman. In that sense, this story about a 24-year-old waif who wishes she were demented enough to warrant a lobotomy is familiar. What she wants, and what Moshfegh has in store for her, is a momentous awakening. And that comes in the form of new counselor Rebecca, a tall redhead who captivates Eileen instantaneously.

Rebecca is the focal point of the entire second half of the novel and, unfortunately, will likely divide readers of Eileen. In terms of building up to a satisfying denouement, Moshfegh litters Eileen’s account with statement after statement reminding the reader that this is her final week in X-ville and that everything was patently dreary until Rebecca showed up. These refrains attempt to build tension and anticipation for what we’ve been told time and time again is a shocking event in the life of Eileen, but instead, Moshfegh makes you impatient and not in a way that makes it a fast read to the end. She detracts from her haunting prose by making readers look forward rather than revel in the mundane awful with Eileen. And Rebecca herself seems like a caricature in this rural noir, a character whose twisted actions are too rooted in justice to fit the rest of the novel’s tortured dreadfulness.

From an unassuming beginning, Moshfegh’s novel culminates in a harrowing story of parental abuse, a kidnapping and a gun whose presence overshadows all. Through it all, Eileen is more a pawn than a conscious participant, drawn into it by Rebecca’s magnetism, but surprisingly she escapes unscathed and with renewed confidence. The appeal of the novel’s first half is Moshfegh’s masterful control of her characters and locales, coupled with a distinct, morbid humor, but motivations and defined character behaviors fall by the wayside as she rapidly approaches the finale twist. In the end, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Rebecca has hijacked Moshfegh’s quietly brooding novel.

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