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The Surprising Transformative Power of Ottessa Moshfegh's Eileen

Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen is a Pen/Hemingway winner and was on the short list for the Man Booker Prize, so I opened the book with great anticipation.

After my initial negative response to Eileen, I set the book aside and turned away from this litany of human ills, desperation, and destitution, this work of human folly, “madness and selfishness.” From petty crimes outlined to rape and murder, from the heinous acts of child abuse to sexual abuse, from perverted acts of heroism turned fatal, Eileen is a world of disturbance. I needed to shed that skin of the title character’s ugly story, a parody of the Bildungsroman of horribly failing and miserably flailing attempts at love. Of course, I stayed up half the night to finish reading Moshfegh’s novel.

Sometime in the middle of the next afternoon, however, I found myself back in Eileen Dunlop’s old Dodge cruising through her imaginary town that felt all too real. The very aspects that turned me away from Moshfegh’s work brought me back to revelation: “I pulled the rapist’s file…He didn’t seem so bad,” narrates Eileen as she goes through the files at Moorehead, the boys’ prison/detention facility. When Eileen says, “Everybody is broken. Everybody suffered,” we only later understand that Moshfegh is speaking here about the wider world beyond her characters who reveal it.

What at first seemed like a stab at Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird with its bleak and damaged landscape of human evils and atrocities, Moshfegh shoves a 24-year-old virgin obsessed with sex and sexuality out the door that only swings between perverse characters and more desperate, depraved ones. Eileen is morbid and funny and awful. Each day, she dons her “death mask, bristling underneath with shame.” It is hard to like the character Eileen, but we are compelled to follow her and her “stunted development.”

The protagonist’s alcoholic father is continually cruel in his underwear and “explosive moods.” Eileen’s absent sister is a likely victim of incest: “despite her whorish ways, my father adored by sister, pined for her it seemed.” There is a Dunlop aunt who never intervenes to help, a mean and selfish dead mother, the dysfunctional Polk family with another incestuous father/cop, a murderous son, and an enabling mother who dooms them all. Even the young woman who appears on the scene as if to become the heroic figure is undercut with subversion. Rebecca Saint John holds the promise of a saint without the substance. Eileen finally figures out Rebecca: “She may have been the worst of all.”

Moshfegh creates flawed people and sad human beings: “Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness.”

These characters are all desperate for genuine human connection, yet they seem incapable of saving themselves or anyone else. At the heart of their failure is the failure of love: “Love can be like that. It can vanish in an instant.”

Only looking back did I realize the significance of Moshfegh’s startling achievement: creating compassion, not merely sympathy, for her characters. Ottessa Moshfegh wrote a story in which we feel empathy for the least, the worst in all of us, in humanity, and that kind of love and forgiveness is transformative.

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