Eileen is the story of a 24-year-old woman in a small town in New England sometime in the early sixties. She lives with her emotionally cruelly but not physically abusive alcoholic father, where she has taken on a carer, co-dependent role since the death of her mother. Eileen works in a children’s prison and dreams of emptying her father’s bank account and going off to start a new life in New York. She doesn’t have any friends and seems to be suffering from body dysmorphia, telling us one minute that she is fat and the next that she weights 100lbs. The story is essentially about Eileen leaving X-ville.
This is a hard book to pigeonhole. On the one hand, it is wonderfully written, poetic, looping, well observed and fascinating and on the other seems full of mistakes, repetitive language and missed opportunities with a rather flat climax.
To start with the good bits – I was hooked from the very beginning. I was mesmerized by Moshfegh’s prose and I love an anti-hero. With set ups such as ‘this would be the last time I left the office,’ I was fully on board to hear about Eileen’s adventures. As the character study deepened, I had a feeling reminiscing of reading Dostoevsky. When the Rebecca character came along, I was excited too. She was drawn so well, I was convinced she might have been someone I knew. Their developing relationship sounded exactly like an experience I’d had with a beautiful, confident redhead at about that age. And Rebecca’s unhinged actions, which bring about the catalyst for Eileen’s change, were totally unpredictable from my POV. So if I could have just had these parts I would have been thrilled by Eileen.
However… there were too many issues for me in this book to make it enjoyable. The first 20 pages of exposition soon turned into 80 pages of the same information told from another experience. We learn early on that her father is a drunk, that she has body issues, that she steals, that she’s ambivalent about a range of elements in her life, but these get revisited time and time again with no further effect. The only outcome is that things we are told – that the author tells us are so for Eileen – get confused. Yes, Eileen is an unreliable character regarding her body and feelings about sex, but in one passage she tells us she has an idea of what a penis looks like from her father’s porno mags and 20 pages later she tells us as her father’s mags don’t include penises, she relies on a text book. There’s also some details about her mother which don’t seem to mesh. At the beginning, she bitterly complains that the house is dirty because her mother isn’t there to clean up anymore and later on gives us the impression that her mother was a poor housekeeper. This feels like the subject has been over written to the point where the author has lost hold of the threads. However, if it is meant to be further evidence of unreliability, it goes so far as to make anything she says dismissible.
I was really looking forward to reading Eileen, so much so that I didn’t even read all of the Guardian review before searching it out. If I had, I would have read that the book fails as a thriller. It was only after I finished Eileen that I went back to the review, curious what Sandra Newman had said of it and why. That’s when I read the last line ….
“Eileen is original, courageous and masterful…however, the plot machinery simply stands immobile until it’s cranked into life at the very end, whereupon it unceremoniously malfunctions and falls apart…”
I hate to end a review with a review, but that sums it up. Eileen is beautifully written prose, but the plot is not great thriller or suspense fiction material.