Exploring the truth of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen

Our book choice for March was Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Eileen’  and  the discussion began by considering how the first person narrative choice forces the reader to question how much they can trust the information that is being filtered through the disturbed vision of our main character.

Some of our group felt cheated when they considered that maybe they had been lied to by our narrator who had been careful to suggest that she was laying everything bear and therefore was a trustworthy witness to the events she was describing. We looked at how the writer achieved this closeness while retaining an element of unreliability through her clever construction of moving back and forth through time to remind the reader that the details were being constructed decades after the events had passed and through the words of a woman who was falling apart. Many readers wanted to believe that Eileen had somehow moved on in her later life to a better place but there was little in the story to convince us that she had done so. Indeed there was much to suggest that she was not in a good place after all she had experienced. The narrative as a whole had to be approached with the question as to how much was real.

CarThe strength of this novel lies in the jarring relationship between the two female characters and how this acts as a catalyst for the unfolding events. Eileen’s description of Rebecca Saint John sets her up as a femme fatale who Eileen hero-worships almost to the point of falling in love with an ideal of womanhood. The crime scene in the novel suggests that Rebecca is the leader both tricking and confusing Eileen into becoming an accomplice. The reader however is reminded that the narrative format forces us to question if it happened as Eileen described and how we can understand Rebecca’s motivations and actions beyond Eileen’s version. The question can also be asked if Eileen is neglecting to add her own motivation to the narrative as there is much of her life that parallels the Polk family so it may be wish fulfilment to avenge her own parent’s abuse that drives her actions rather than merely the weakness of falling in with her new-found friend’s poorly hashed plans to force a confession.

The discussion about the writing style of this novel highlighted the over-sharing of bodily functions, which added to the confessional approach of an ‘I’ narrator who claimed to be telling all. Some readers noted that her 2016 interviews with The Guardian, Publisher’s Weekly and The Telegraph hinted that the author had personal experience of alcoholism and eating disorders. This has led Moshfegh to be compared to Sylvia Plath, but we chose to consider her form of confessional style to be more in keeping with modern American feminist writings such as that of Lena Dunham who cites her motivation for her hit series Girls as rejecting the objectification of women. Moshfegh stated in her Publisher’s Weekly interview that she wanted to create “an honest character” that could express hard truths and that she was exploring feminist issues using a mystery/thriller format. Although we appreciated the concept of what Moshfegh suggests may be her motivation, several readers were sceptical that this was her sole intention and that the novel read like a checklist of every unpleasant topic that could be rolled out to create shock value and therefore get her noticed as a writer.

This novel certainly produced a lively discussion and despite its unlikeable characters, anti-heroes and disturbing descriptions of lives falling apart, the group enjoyed this month’s choice and agreed it had real moments of exceptional writing. Moshfegh creates a believable world that expresses the claustrophobia of a small town in 1960s America where an ex-cop’s daughter has to lock his shoes in the car to prevent him causing havoc in his alcoholic rages. The clustering of images suggesting imprisonment fits well with the setting and highlights the confessional purposes of the narrative where the reader must question truth, culpability and how damaging childhood experiences create broken individuals.

We look forward to next month’s book choice which will lead us all in a very different direction. I hope to see you all on 10th April to discuss Orhan Pamuk A Strangeness in my Mind.

Anthea Cordner

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