Sunday, December 20, 2015

Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh

It's important to keep in mind, given what I'm about to relay, which is everything I remember from that evening, that I had truly never had a real friend before. Growing up I'd only had Joanie, who disliked me, and a girlfriend or two here and there in grade school, usually the other class reject. I remember a girl with braces on her legs in junior high, and an obese girl in high school who barely spoke. There was an Oriental girl whose parents owned the one Chinese restaurant in X-ville, but even she discarded me when she made cheerleading squad. Those were not real friends. Believing that a friend is someone who loves you, and that love is the willingness to do anything, sacrifice anything for the other's happiness, left me with an impossible ideal, until Rebecca. I held the phone close to my heart, caught my breath. I could have squealed with delight. If you've been in love, you know this kind of exquisite anticipation, this ecstasy. I was on the brink of something, and I could feel it.

Otessa Moshfegh's Eileen was a surprise, not because it was good, but because of how good it was. Moshfegh is a Paris Review favorite. According to her wikipedia page, she's published 6 stories since 2012; I think it's been four in the two years since I started subscribing (you can see in my Paris Review Review from last year, two of her stories made my best list). So, while I expected to enjoy her novel, I (for no reason I can discern) did not expect to love it. It was my favorite novel this year.

The novel is narrated by Eileen, reflecting back on 1964. Early into the novel we learn: (1) she did something that required her to leave her home town; (2) she was a very different person in 1964 than she is when she narrates the novel; (3) she was plain--at least viewed herself so; and (4) she cares for her alcoholic father, who is losing his sanity.

This conveys two things to the reader: that Eileen feels trapped by her situation and that something is about to dramatically change.

I can't describe how skillfully (and quickly) Moshfegh conveys this information. I also don't want to reveal to much because a lot of the pleasure of this novel is the slow unwrapping of Eileen's life, leading up to this event that both defines the novel and Eileen's life.

The precipitating change that begins the chain of events in the novel is the arrival of a new coworker, Rebecca. Rebecca is everything that Eileen is not: where Rebecca is attractive, Eileen is plain; where Rebecca is confident and assertive, Eileen is self-conscious and quiet. They become friends and the novel progresses from there.

Two characteristics of this novel made me enjoy it so much: First, Moshfegh's writing shines. It's engaging throughout, even if it feels like nothing is happening in the story. Second, Moshfegh writes about a topic that I often feel is under-represented in literature, what life is like under the cloud of poverty and mental illness.

Moshfegh is quite young (34), so I'm hoping this is the first of many more novels of this caliber.

And, because this was a good article about her, I'm linking to the Vanity Fair write-up of her, aptly titled, Don't Google Otessa Moshfegh: Read Her Debut Novel, Eileen, Instead.

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