Ottessa wields her mighty pen again, this time choosing a main character who is so blonde and thin and beautiful that we can’t complain about ugliness like we did with Eileen. The story is a blur of nothingness, the character existing off her inheritance and taking weird drug cocktails to try and sleep her entire life away. Some of the drugs don’t work as advertised—she is extremely active during those blackouts, going to raves and shopping and frequently waking up with bizarre remnants of the evening or on the LIRR not sure what day it is, what time it is, and which direction she’s headed. After reading several gushing interviews about Ottessa recently, I wonder if this book isn’t her getting back at us, sneering at us to say look how interesting I can make a story about a woman passed out most of the time. At any rate, this is my least favorite of hers so far, despite the obvious writing talent.
In an interview with The Guardian, Ottessa said she wrote this during her MFA course at Brown, “Looking back I’m astonished that I wrote it, I think it’s an astonishing book.” Indeed it is.
Incoherent, poetic rambling from the mouth of a sick alcoholic (McGlue) jailed for killing his best friend, Johnson. Parts are very very violent, leaving me shuddering. But overwhelmingly you’re drawn into the dream world of McGlue as he frets below-deck of the ship in a haze and ensconced in a Salem jail once he’s on shore. He keeps yelping for Johnson, not believing that he’s dead.
“Right,” I said, but it didn’t feel very right. I didn’t want to make it. I wanted to lie down with it and strangle it and kill it and save it and nurse it and kill it again and I wanted to go and forget where I was going and I wanted to change my name and forget my face and wanted to drink and get my head ruined but I certainly hadn’t thought about making it.
The language is just unstoppable:
I’ve not seen Johnson in too long. He comes and goes in my mind’s eye and still he hasn’t come to my lock-up down here in the boat to cool my nerves, my hot snake brains they feel like, slithering and stewing around, steam seeping through the crack in my head.
Me, peddling my legs around Salem like a windup doll looking for a glass teat to suck. “We’ll go,” he said. “I’d even pay my way.” But he didn’t have to try hard to get a job on that ship, and with him me too. Looking like a stowaway I made onto that ship the day of departure with Jonson clearing a path for me, like a prince. “He’s not feeling well,” was his explanation for why I was stained with wine, stumbling, smirking and raising a finger to say something, then forgetting and stumbling on.
A short story collection that includes her story I first read in the Paris Review—Dancing in the Moonlight—which was one of the strongest pieces in the book. Some of the stories felt like they could have used a bit more shaping, the endings coming on too sudden or jarringly. Overall yet another dip into the weird brain of Moshfegh, a delightful escape from the world of the normals.
Little did I know when I grabbed a few copies of The Paris Review from my neighbor’s “Help Yourself” pile that I’d discover a new favorite author. Ottessa Moshfegh has major writing skills, and her short story Dancing in the Moonlight left me wanting more, which I got served in her novel, Eileen. I finished the book minutes ago and feel completely wrung out, spent, a puddle having been floored by her talent.
Eileen is the narrator of this weird, dark tale—a twenty-something reject living with her drunk father and working at the boys’ prison in town. Her mother died five years previously and Eileen shuffles between work and home and the liquor store filling up her father’s liver and her own, wearing her dead mother’s clothes, eating mayonnaise sandwiches, jamming cold handfuls of snow into her underpants to wash away the image of two teenagers necking. A radiant, sparkling woman, Rebecca, comes to work at the prison, changing Eileen’s life forever.
The author is masterful in dropping hints that keep you reading. You know that the narrator survives the hellish landscape she’s describing, because she’s still here 50 years later, narrating her tale. But little pops of mystery get nestled in, you know she disappears before Christmas and she layers on lavish details about her present and past as she keeps reminding you that within a week of this occurrence, she’s gone from town, or in a few days she’ll be out of there. You see her ex-cop dad’s gun make its appearance, wonder about its significance. When she goes to Rebecca’s on Christmas Eve, Rebecca is acting weird and you start to get very anxious, what is going to happen, and then boom—you find out Mrs. Polk is tied up in the basement. It’s brilliant, well-paced, beautifully written.
Here are a few samples to give a flavor:
My father said it himself: I smelled like hell. I dressed myself in my mother’s old Sunday clothes—gray trousers, black sweater, hooded woolen parka. I put on my snow boots and drove to the library. I’d just finished looking through a brief history of Surname and a book on how to tell the future from looking at the stars. The former had great pictures of nearly naked men and old topless women. I recall one photograph of a monkey suckling a woman’s nipple, but perhaps I’m inventing. I liked twisted things like that. My curiosity for the stars is obvious: I wanted something to tell me my future was bright. I can imagine myself saying at the time that life itself was like a book borrowed from the library —something that did not belong to me and was due to expire. How silly.
I remember sitting up on my cot under a bare lightbulb and surveying the attic. It’s a charming picture of misery.
There’s nothing I detest more than men with happy childhoods.
A grown woman is like a coyote—she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness.
When I was very upset, hot and shaking, I had a particular way of controlling myself. I found an empty room and grit my teeth and pinched my nipples while kicking the air like a cancan dancer until I felt foolish and ashamed. That always did the trick.
I’m almost too scared to learn anything about this writer which might puncture my perfect understanding of her talent, but I’ve added a few more of her books to my list.