bookie book book – Eileen

Blogs evolve (obvious-est statement in the world #1). Sometimes a blogger takes a hard left and changes it whole cloth, and sometimes it just shifts like a riverbed. Mine has been so many different things, including for a while a knitting blog. Usually it’s a personal blog, as you know already. Always I mention books because, aside from my kids and grandkids and my traveling life, books are the most central and defining detail of my existence.

Now I am a book ambassador for Little, Brown, a publisher that’s one of my favorites (along with Graywolf, and Vintage, and Picador, and FSG, and Penguin). All this means is that they’re going to start sending me books (hard copies, I think, which means I can start to rebuild my personal library that I had to decimate when I moved to NYC in 2005) and if I like any of them, I write, post, Instagram, share. No requirements, no expectations beyond that. I can do that, and happily.

I already review almost every book I read on GoodReads, and mention books in passing here, but thought I might start writing about them a little bit more on my blog, whether for Little, Brown or otherwise. SO! I just finished reading Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh, and it’s almost indescribable. It’s disgusting. It’s gross. It’s creepy. It’s awful. It’s wrenching. It’s unbelievable unless you’ve lived aspects of her life, which I have, so I know that it’s believable, even if you don’t think so because you are luckier than I have been.

I’m known in my former book club as a trauma book junkie. The joke about me was that if it was my turn to pick the book, it would be about the Holocaust. I guess to a large extent that’s true, and it’s that I am most fascinated by what people do when their backs are against the wall. That’s when you see who they are, and that’s what fascinates me. Who breaks, and how. Who comes through, and how do they do it. What are the consequences. Those issues fascinate me, along with questions of post-traumatic growth. If you’ve made it through hell, and you find a way to flourish, how do you do that, and what can it look like?

So in this book, Eileen lives in Xville with her late-stages alcoholic father, who is an ex-cop, and quite vicious, especially and almost solely to Eileen. Her mother has died and she wears her mother’s frumpy old clothes, hides in them. Her sister, favored by her father, is something of a fluffy, trampy woman who just shows up on occasion, gets praised by their father, and leaves Eileen to the mess. At the end of the first chapter, which sets the landscape of Eileen’s truly miserable existence, we get this:

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes—a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.

This is the story of how I disappeared.

Eileen is a gross young woman, her life is disgusting, the house she shares with her father is DISGUSTING and filthy. She takes large doses of laxatives, doesn’t bathe or wash her hair, eats like a furtive rat, and drinks too much. Moshfegh is extraordinary at providing the specific colors, textures, smells, sounds, to gross you out. I often felt nauseated by the description. Now, don’t you want to read it? Reviewers on GoodReads talk about how ugly it is, how dark, repellent, filthy, etc., and they aren’t wrong. But I still recommend this book, as long as you go in knowing this about it, because:

  • No one else could have written these sentences. It isn’t that they’re especially eloquent, or beautiful (obviously), or filled with lyrical description (obviously) or great vocabulary. It’s just that they are unique, and specific in their observation, and again and again I’d read something that just made me sit up because I’d never read a sentence like that. Or I’d never read that point of view, or observation, even though I knew the absolute truth of it. This is one brief passage I highlighted because it was like a spotlight hit me with the truth of it: “When poor people hear a loud noise, they whip their heads around. Wealthy people finish their sentences, then just glance back.” I have been that poor, and even though I’m not that poor now, my head still always whips around.
  • Moshfegh is a brave storyteller, and I admire that. Right from the very beginning you know something dramatic happens, right from the outset you know there is a crime, she leaves, but you don’t learn what it is until 85% into the book. I kept thinking she was about to reveal the twist — “This was my last day at work, even though I didn’t know it,” etc — but then on the book would go, tripping along with all these lasts, each digressing into story but never getting to the twist. That’s brave storytelling, trusting that she had the chops to keep you reading. Around 20-25% I started to get frustrated, and would scan ahead thinking the thing was surely just about to happen, and finally I decided just to trust her, and go with it. I’m really glad I did. (I’ll read the book again, for sure, and will be more relaxed about this.)
  • Nothing is simple or black and white, which is my FAVORITE thing in the world since nothing is. The catalyst character, Rebecca, is not well sketched-out, and the longer I thought about the book after I finished it, the more I realized I was unsatisfied by her. I think she was the least successful — not because of what she did, which was dramatic and odd and unexplained, but because I was not given enough about her to even craft a vague explanation for her. I didn’t need to understand her completely, or know her back story, but she was a bit too much of a cipher. Still, the way her part of the story ended was certainly not black and white, and if the book had been written by a less confident writer, it would’ve been. It would’ve been like any TV drama, and the book would have been less satisfying.
  • The end story for Eileen is beautiful and I just felt such relief for her. It’s funny; it reminded me of that old Steve Martin joke about how to be a millionaire and never pay taxes (“First, get a million dollars. Now, forget to pay taxes.”) — wait! I want to know that first part! In Eileen’s case, her whole life after she leaves Xville is glossed over and not at all part of the story. You don’t get to know how she got there, from here. But you get to know that she did.

I’m not a reader who insists that things be nice. Characters don’t have to be nice, or clean, or simple. It always surprises me to read reviews that are critical simply because the reader hated the character. I’m glad to hate a character! I’m glad to feel squidgey, to feel squirmy, to feel uneasy, to feel like perhaps a shower would be good right now because the story is that gross. If that’s the world of the story, and the writer does a good job with it, I’m all in.

So I recommend this book as long as you know it’s going to be gross. It’s going to make you uncomfortable. You’ll never read anything else quite like it, I can say that for sure. Here’s the Amazon link, if you’re interested.