Book Review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Categorized in many reviews as ‘unlikable’ and ‘unstable’ and all naysaying things ‘un’, Eileen is a vivid and compelling character study in contradictions, discomfort, and authenticity. I found her deeply raw and real, and endlessly fascinating—I couldn’t look away I was so enthralled. I would count her as one of my favorite characters—ever.

Humans are nothing if not a complicated mess of contradictions; some more so than others. Every act, no matter how infinitesimal, reveals who we are—each act as absurd as is dull; sometimes both as is evident of those presently in power. One of the biggest most revealing is authenticity1. That many reviewers insisted on listing ‘unstable’ and ‘deeply disturbed’ to Eileen, and her thoughts as ‘nasty’ and ‘morbid’ bares all and then some—not of Eileen or Moshfegh, but of themselves.

One of the things I promised myself when I started writing these reviews is to be authentic, empathetic and fair, not only to myself and the author, but to the book—the narrative, the characters, the words, the subject, themes, etc. I cannot stand reading reviews of simple book summaries and usually avoid them—YAWN! They are bland and blank façades, mundane deliveries of sameness, and lots of wasted time—lessons in tedium for sure. I mean, why even write if you’re not going to bleed a little on the page? If you’re not going to leave a little of yourself behind?

Judgment or analysis is a subjective road and one that once you start down can become effortless and limited with few outlets or turns. The perspective becomes stagnant and unchanging—one of those naysaying ‘un’ words. As we’re going down this road, we lose sight of ourselves by placing the burden of authenticity on others while we become a cardboard cutout of blahs. Welcome to the fake social media era where everyone on Instagram and Facebook is perfect and no one is flawed and fucked up. Where everything is the same and nothing is uncertain and unpredictable—those more practical and productive ‘un’ words, and so much more honest. Hello, that fraudulent whitewashed utopia—we’ll call it X-ville—isn’t the place where I and lots of others live or wanna live.

One of the reasons I retired as a portrait and fashion photographer was because I found myself going down that road surrounded by an industry and society that demanded perfection and conformity within their very limited and distorted perspective. I hated it and begin to hate myself and humanity. So, I quit. It was a hideous society filled with lots of fake ugly unhealthy people that pretended they were beautiful and righteous and flawless. Years later and now I see why—an inauthentic core creates a poisoned society. Repressing all the unseemly has led to an onslaught into the ugliness of a misguided privilege and faux entitlement and an outright purge of everything vile and deeply loathsome. Or one could surmise that has always been there imbedded in that core of society inherent in a white patriarchal system: Humanity is at its ugliness when it denies who and what we are.

That’s an entire other essay altogether and one I could easily get lost in.

Moshfegh not only bled on the page, she left a kidney, part of her liver, a small chunk of heart, smelly vomit and other sticky bodily goo too if we wanna be truly authentic. Her truisms bleed all over, in between words and tangled within confines of a bleakness that heightens everything real; and, an unlimited space to grow filling that space with everything distinct and dissimilar and atypical—queer, if you will; oftentimes uncomfortable and awkward much to the delight of those of us who endure perpetually in that state; where we confront our existence every single second in all actualities while others paint over those details with the dull lifeless colors of conformity. That is the beauty of Moshfegh’s Eileen, and one I can relate to so much so it’s refreshing and oh so liberating. I love it. It’s brilliant and fantastic and stunning in all its messy humanness. I can only aspire to write such human purity. The contradictions render an individual that sees not only mirrors but windows, and that’s what’s amazing about Moshfegh’s character study. Character in and of itself is contradiction. In order to thrive, we too run away from X-ville to where we can live and grow more freely and fully and contently without such narrow constraints on ourselves and our surroundings.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is in the queue. I look forward to many more of Moshfegh’s raw authentic characters and I thank her for leaving all that blood and gore on each page.

“I will say this about houses. Those perfect, neat colonials I’d passed earlier that evening on my way through X-ville are the death masks of normal people. Nobody is really so orderly, so perfect. To have a house like that says more about what’s wrong with you than any decrepit dump. Those people with perfect houses are simply obsessed with death. A house that is so well maintained, furnished with good-looking furniture of high quality, decorated tastefully, everything in its place, becomes a living tomb. People truly engaged in life have messy houses.”

“Furthermore, as is typical for any isolated, intelligent young person, I thought I was the only one with any consciousness, any awareness of how odd it was to be alive, to be a creature on this strange planet Earth.”

“If I’d worn glasses I could have passed for smart, but I was too impatient to be truly smart.”

“I am not one of those women who try to make people happy all the time. I’m not that strategic.”

“The idea that my brains could be untangled, straightened out, and thus refashioned into a state of peace and sanity was a comforting fantasy.”

“I preferred to read about ancient times, distant lands. Knowledge of anything current or faddish made me feel I was just a victim of isolation. If I avoided all that on purpose, I could believe I was in control.”

“I wasn’t radical at all. I was simply unhappy. So I sat at my desk and practiced my death mask—face in perfect indifference, no muscles twitching, eyes blank, still, brow furrowed ever so slightly. I had this childish idea that it is best when dealing with a new friend to withhold all opinions until the other puts forth her opinions first. Nowadays perhaps we’d call the attitude blasé. It is a peculiar posture of insecure people. They feel most comfortable denying any perspective whatsoever rather than proclaiming any allegiance or philosophy and risk rejection and judgment.”

“Did she honestly think she had the power to atone for someone else’s sins, that she could exact justice with her wit, her superior thinking? People born of privilege are sometimes thus confused.”


1 Lest you read my review and authenticity manifesto as an endorsement in being an immoral blight on humanity, I urge you to read this philosophical treatise on authenticity and hope that your internal battles pave—or mandate—the way to a more virtuous wisdom towards yourself and society. Namaste. 🙏


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