My mum – who it has to be said, is not always right on everything – has a rule which she lives by at least in regards to the watching of films. That rule is this: if a film is described as a psychological thriller, it will either be slow or boring or slow and boring. Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen isn’t (I’m sure you’ll be pleased to learn) boring. But it is slow. And it teases you with the eventual pay-off in a very protracted way. And the pay-off, you know, isn’t all that.
What we have here is the story of a young lady in her twenties told by a much older lady, many years after the events recounted here have been put to bed, as it were. Eileen isn’t at all fond of herself (she hates her body, she thinks she stinks – and she may be right – she feels like an encumbrance, you get the picture). Part of the reason for this is that she lives with her alcoholic father who doesn’t have an awful lot of nice things to say about her (compared to her sister about whom he does have a lot of nice things to say, but maybe just maybe her father abused her sister so maybe just maybe Eileen had the better deal of the two). He is a former policeman and his mind has a tendency to wander, becoming alarmed at phantoms and shadows who he believes are the mob, out to get him. Set out day by day over a roughly week long period, Moshfegh is certainly good at establishing the habitual routines which guide each of their days (although, again, the fact that their days are so habitual give the book an eery sense of repetition that doesn’t always work in its favour).
Eileen works at a correctional facility for young boys, doing her utmost to glide beneath the contempt of her older, fussier colleagues whilst at the same time lusting mightily after Randy, one of the better looking guards, who hardly so much as looks her way. In her spare time, when she is off running errands for her old man, she likes to park outside Randy’s house and imagine ways in which they could collide, opening the doors to some future that is hopefully better than the one she exists in (and throughout, older Eileen tells us that in time Eileen does go on to enjoy sexual relationships with all kinds of men, so there you go but – and it’s a big but – the ways in which the older Eileen and the younger Eileen don’t differ, in other words the lack of any real perspective offered by the older Eileen, leaves you the reader wondering if older Eileen is just a device rather than a fully fleshed out alternate).
And then, before you can so much as sneeze the words Patricia Highsmith, in comes Rebecca, a seemingly cosmopolitan sort. She dresses well, she exudes confidence, she’s the proverbial breath of fresh air and lickety-split Eileen no longer gives a hoot about Randy but she’s mad keen to impress her new friend. Here we come to the real issue with Eileen as a novel: pacing. Moshfegh spends a fair bit of time setting her scene and establishing her characters. With the appearance of Rebecca, the pace accelerates (Eileen becomes infatuated in a sort of asexual way) but in a way that sits askance with the rest of the book. Eileen switches her affections and then the rest of the book runs with the idea almost in the hope that you won’t notice. Come on, it says. Don’t dawdle. She likes Rebecca now. She’s going to Rebecca’s house. She’d definitely do that. She would. Hurry up. There is a criminal act that overshadows the climax of the book but the way in which the characters engage with it suggests that everything we have learned about them is largely wrong (Rebecca isn’t the clever, confident, charismatic, cosmopolitan sort we glimpsed through Eileen’s eyes, she’s a person willing to throw away everything she has worked for, presumably for years, at a time – Eileen is set in 1964 – when it was even harder for a woman to make her way in the world than it is today, all as a result of one conversation with a young boy; and Eileen largely accepts the mess into which she wanders without a by your leave).
Any Cop?: Eileen felt to this reader like an average book made strange by its positioning on the Booker Prize shortlist (because you read and you think, were there really a half dozen people who thought this was one of the books of 2016?). It’s not without merit – because Moshfegh is certainly adept at creating a slightly dull, slightly flat workaday world that has undertones of subtle menace and prurient sexuality – but it wouldn’t make this particular reader’s top 10.