Join Hafta-Ichi to find out the article “Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh review – an odd double of Plath’s Bell Jar | Books”
There is something about Eileen – the first-person narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel of the same name – that is not quite right. “I hated almost everything,” she tells the reader on page two. “I was very unhappy and angry all the time.” She lives in a squalid menage with her alcoholic father, with whom she has a profane, semi-sexual, very occasionally fond, mostly murderous relationship. She works at a correctional facility for boys, where she passes the time by composing meaningless questionnaires for the mothers who visit the inmates, and lusts for the most handsome of the prison guards. She touches herself and smells her finger and catalogues her body’s flaws. She puts on a “death mask” to disguise herself from the world, and “leaf[s] blithely” through the pages of her father’s porno magazines in secret. She elicits sympathy and revulsion in the reader.
Eileen narrates her own story from a remove of decades, reminding the reader always that she is describing her final week, or day, or afternoon in the drab Massachusetts town in which she lives. Certain things keep rattling around the story, like her father’s gun, or a suspiciously beautiful woman who comes to work at the correctional facility and who gives Eileen a thrill. The pace at which Eileen the narrator and Eileen the novel reveal each new piece of nastiness is very effective, alarming news delivered casually; for example, we learn that Eileen is engaged in some minor stalking of the handsome prison guard: “I spent most Sundays … driving to and from Randy’s house.”
I thought of The Bell Jar while reading this novel. In some respects Eileen is the odd double of Plath’s Esther Greenwood. Both New England women of the 1960s, both poor, both at the mercy of a single parent who pushes them to live a life they don’t necessarily want to live. Both are placid without and turbulent within. But whereas Esther is an overachiever, driven by her mother to excel, Eileen never finishes college, and is kept by her father in a position of servility. Both women are inward-looking and mercilessly observant, and sometimes a little clumsy in their expression. Here’s Esther on drinking: “I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.” When Eileen gets upset she has an odd way of getting it together: “I found an empty room and grit my teeth and pinched my nipples while kicking the air like a cancan dancer until I felt foolish and ashamed.”
While Esther ends up in one kind of facility, Eileen ends up escaping another and making a life on her own. Eileen has a hardness, a sort of mild sociopathy that allows her to hurt someone and use their prone body to pull herself into freedom and safety.
Rarely have I read a novel whose protagonist is such an exact corollary to the text itself. Like Eileen the woman, there are things to admire and disturb in Moshfegh’s book – the perversity, the pervading sense of doom. But there is something about this novel that, like its heroine, is not quite right. The prose clunks; Eileen is a little too in love with her own awfulness:
It always peeved me when my flatness was met with good cheer, good manners. Didn’t she know I was a monster, a creep, a crone? How dare she mock me with courtesy when I deserved to be greeted with disgust and dismay?
So close are Eileen and the text that the ways in which the novel is not quite right feel almost intentional. It makes sense, given her cobbled-together education, that Eileen would teeter between something pretentiously villainous and melodramatic: “At first, yes, Rebecca was a dream to me, she was magic, she was powerful and everything I wanted to be.” But Eileen is meant to be writing at a remove of decades, from the perspective of a worldlier woman – “O’Hara’s was the town pub, which I’ll name after the poet whose work I always felt shut out of, even after I’d learned to read like a grown-up.” Her prose has the grandiose coltishness befitting the young woman whose early life she narrates. Moreover, some things don’t feel particularly believable. It’s hard to imagine the terrible, drunken, addled father who visited the toilet with a handgun ever tolerating Eileen’s “blabbering on about my ideas, regurgitating barely read synopses from the backs of books … talking about how I felt about myself, life, the times in which we lived”.
The bad thing that is eventually revealed, and the bad thing that happens as a consequence, don’t quite live up to the atmospheric badness with which the novel draws along the reader. But there is something satisfyingly unsettling about the novel – the awfulness of Eileen’s life crackles throughout the air of X-Ville like static electricity, ready to discharge in some unlikely place or upon some unlikely person. And when it does, when the bell jar lifts, our heroine “open to the circulating air” and finally free, we can’t help but feel the slightest bit glad.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is published by Vintage. To order a copy for £7.37 (RRP £8.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh review – an odd double of Plath’s Bell Jar | Books