In the literary world — a mysterious world that most mortals glimpse only from afar — Ottessa Moshfegh is seen as a comer, perhaps even the Next Big Thing. She has inspired big-league buzz by writing stories in the Paris Review, winning prizes and fellowships, and publishing a novella called “McGlue” about a drunken sailor who’s in prison for murdering his best friend.
The attention that is greeting Moshfegh’s first novel is not undeserved. “Eileen” is a remarkable piece of writing, always dark and surprising, sometimes ugly and occasionally hilarious. Its first-person narrator is one of the strangest, most messed-up, most pathetic — and yet, in her own inimitable way, endearing — misfits I’ve encountered in fiction. Trust me, you have never read anything remotely like “Eileen.”
Eileen Dunlop tells us of one week in her life just before Christmas 1964, when she was 24. She lives with her drunken, increasingly deranged father, a retired policeman, in a small town near Boston. (Her mother is dead.) She works in the office of a deplorable prison for teenage boys. She hates her looks, her small breasts, her bad skin, her invisibility to men. She’s a virgin and claims she’s content, although she has explicit fantasies about “the nether regions” of almost every man she sees. “I’d always believed that my first time would be by force,” she confides. “Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me.”
Unfortunately, the only man in her life is her father, who stumbles around in his bathrobe with his gun in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other. “He was fearful and crazy the way old drunks get,” she says. Eileen sleeps on a cot in the attic of the filthy house they share, trying to avoid the father who not only endlessly insults her but once drunkenly groped her.
Work is no better. She’s bossed around by two older, seriously stupid women in the prison office. Her fantasies extend to the teenage prisoners, even those who have killed their parents or younger siblings. To amuse herself, when mothers are waiting to see their sons, she orders them to fill out questionnaires she has written but presents as official, with questions such as “Do you believe there is life on Mars?” and “Do you prefer canned peas or canned carrots?” But not all is fun and games. Eileen likes books about “awful things — murder, illness, death” and fantasizes about killing her father.
Suddenly, somewhat improbably, someone exciting enters Eileen’s wretched life. Beautiful, sophisticated Rebecca, just out of Harvard, has joined the prison staff. The two women talk. Rebecca invites Eileen to join her for a drink after work. Eileen, who has never before received such an invitation, is thrilled. Soon she’s in love, although she assures us she’s not a lesbian.
By then, as Eileen’s hopes rise, a sense of dread has seized the reader. This unfortunate woman is clearly headed for disaster. When it arrives, it’s predictably violent, but so bizarre that the reader can only gape in astonishment. As one person was about to murder another in cold blood for no good reason, I found myself laughing helplessly at the sheer, glorious absurdity. It’s that kind of book: Start with madness, and you can go anywhere.
“Eileen” may bore some readers and repulse others, but those with a yen for the perverse may well embrace its unsettling pleasures and exceptional writing. Moshfegh’s publisher compares her to Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor. There’s validity in that but only up to a point.
In two of their finest short stories, Jackson’s “The Lottery” and O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” each presented a shocking event: a town’s ritual murder of an innocent and the slaughter of a family by a Southern-fried lunatic. But neither author attempted a relentless, full-length portrait of a troubled, potentially homicidal person like Eileen. Moshfegh’s is a real but different sort of achievement. It will be interesting to see where her strange, scary talent leads her.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin. 260 pp. $25.95