Monday 1 May 2017

Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh

A few thoughts on Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh…

TL;DR right at the beginning: Literary Thriller. Loved it. Slow paced if you’re coming to this book from Lee Child, but right up the alley for all the Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson fans.

I first heard about Eileen, as most others have, from the Man Booker longlist. Subsequently, it was explained as “Thrillers too can be longlisted for lit prizes,” so that immediately hooked my interest. The plot is relatively simple: Eileen is a 24-year-old girl with numerous neuroses and a scary amount of self-obsession. She lives with her rapidly-deteriorating-of-dementia father, and works in the admin section of a juvenile prison. All this is told to us as a flashback - the entire book is a flashback - because sometime during the book, Eileen is going to run away from her small town to New York, change her name, and start a new life. Why will she do that? The clues start collecting in trickles as you go, but the inflection point is a surprise worth it, so I won’t reveal it here.

The book is written entirely in first person with the older Eileen talking about herself. She professes to be much more “normal” now, but personally I have my doubts. But it lets Moshfegh indulge in foreshadowing on every opportunity. It also let her play with the concept of the “destabilizing event”, so beloved of literary-critic types, which is supposed to trigger the plot. After more than 50 pages of describing a normal day in her life, Eileen just says cheekily, “Nothing much happened that day, I just thought of starting the story from there!” ( :) Paraphrased of course.)

Mosfegh also plays well with the Chekhov’s Gun idea (see my earlier post on the topic; it feels like she’s read it too!) The red herrings she lays out are so well done you don’t mind them; indeed, they turn into character building by the time you realize what they are.

None of these plotting tricks would work well if the writing wasn’t good - which it most definitely is. The stress in this literary thriller is squarely on the Literary. Small references turn into important plot points, offhand quotes by Eileen reveal big things about her nature. I stopped at multiple places, trying to find a better word than the deliberately-off-kilter word Mosfegh had used in the text, and couldn’t come up with one.

Worth reading? Hell, yes. It’s a slow burn, but the writing is delicious, and purely as a character study, Eileen is a memorable girl. Fair warning: don’t expect anything very dramatic to happen in the first 3/4ths of the book. 

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