In Brief: Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen

eileenI didn’t like it. In fact, I really didn’t like it. The comparison to Shirley Jackson on the cover tempted but misled me: there’s nothing sly or subtle in this novel, nothing to make you start and look again, or laugh then shudder and look away, the way you have to with We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The only reason I can think of that Eileen was nominated for prestigious prizes including the Booker is that in the rush to free women writers and female protagonists from the stifling obligation to be nice and likable some people have concluded that being mean and unlikable is an aesthetic virtue in and of itself. I have written about this trend a couple of times before: here, comparing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (which I disliked for some of the same reasons I disliked Eileen) to Barbara Pym’s (much better) Excellent Women, and here, attempting to parse the Ferrante phenomenon. I don’t object in principle to novels preoccupied with anger, vomit, and excrement, and I don’t demand carthasis or epiphany as my reward for being vicariously immersed in them, but I would like some sense that they mean something, or that the novel somehow takes us beyond them. Eileen (like Eileen) is just nasty for nastiness’s sake. Who needs that? Not me.

Feel free to tell me I’m wrong. Did I miss some redeeming subtlety, some glints of humor, some pay-off for 260 pages of graphic unpleasantness?

4 thoughts on “In Brief: Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen

  1. Daniel Green June 18, 2018 / 2:41 pm

    There’s certainly nothing subtle about Moshfegh’s fiction (which is part of the point–no concessions to expectations of niceness in women’s fiction). Part of the nastiness in Eileen comes from adhering to thriller conventions. Most of it is that ultimately it’s a novel about a woman whose nastiness is directed mostly at herself. More here:


    • Rohan Maitzen June 19, 2018 / 9:23 am

      That’s an interesting and convincing review, Dan. I think your point that Eileen herself seems like device gets at one of the reasons the novel didn’t work for me. I certainly picked up on the idea of not making any concessions to niceness–hence my links above to the Messud and Ferrante discussions. In fact, it occurs to me that the last novel I disliked this intensely was Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. The opposite of having to be nice shouldn’t be having to horrid: both novels are about as subtle as an email in all caps.


  2. Teresa June 18, 2018 / 9:11 pm

    It took me two tries to finish this because I found most of it so tedious, like it was piling on more ugliness without it having any meaning. I kind of enjoyed the last few chapters because things were finally happening, and I could kind of appreciate that this was a story about someone who ultimately found her way out of the ugliness. But I’ve read many much better books about bad women.


  3. james b chester June 22, 2018 / 10:26 am

    I read this back when it was up for various awards, I do that, but have almost no memory of it now. I also read The Woman Upstairs, around the same time, and can recall it in great detail. So I’m with you here, but we part ways there, I guess.


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