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review 2017-07-17 13:53
A Disturbingly Charming Read
Eileen: A Novel - Ottessa Moshfegh

Reading Eileen is a challenge of acceptance. One that is far from being the norm, especially when it comes to understanding human nature at its worst flaw. I read Eileen because of an upcoming book discussion and one of the things that caught my attention was the analytical approach of its description of why 'people are the way they are' in the things they do we are ashamed to talk about. I try to find the main plot line on this book but its actually about a girl (title character) on her last days on a fictional place of what had happened to her and the people she meets along the way before she leaves town. There isn't much of a plot but there is some thing about the writing that is honest and truthful that I tend to agree that what was not dared said is bare here.

 

Eileen is written in a first person of a past memory that she wants to share with the readers. Why she wanted to leave the place she was born, her relationship with her father, her infatuation with a prison guard, her lifeless job in a children's correctional prison and her habitual past-time habits she isn't ashamed of (like stealing a scarf from a store). Then came a new counselor named Rebecca, a young and beautiful girl who give her more attention than others. What happens next lead to a crime that just give a good reason to leave her home town and never look back. Sounds simple and yet uninteresting right?

 

To be fair, I do find the writing and description so well-written that the one thing that did not escape me is how ugly she made out in words makes it so beautiful and honest. There are things we might be ashamed of writing but Ottessa Moshfegh truly embodies the truth of what we don't talk about with other people. You'll get my meaning when you read it. The other thing was not entirely interesting were the dialogue. It felt flat and fake, which is a contradiction in her writing. On one hand, the description of Eileen's feelings and place and the actions she do was very good but on the other hand, the dialogue is surreal. Its like how bizarre the exchange was between father and daughter is unusual. I just can't picture it too well and that really pull part of the book down. By 2/3's of the book, that's where it becomes interesting. Although it was predictable, its just how well Ottessa capture's Eileen's character at its fullest.

 

While this is actually her first book, its a fast read and an interesting one. I can't help but read it to find out where it is leading and part of me felt this is like American Psycho plotline indie kind of story. As realism gets, its the purpose of Eileen on why she need to leave town that makes it understandable on her reasons of doing that. This is some thing I would recommend people to read because to me, its refreshing. Unlike some authors I read when it comes to writing disgusting scenes, Ottesa makes it sound beautiful in her own way of acceptance, like 'yeah, we do that and that's okay'. For me, it deserves a 4 out of 5 star rating and its a book I would recommend for any readers that accepts true reality of life.

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review 2017-04-18 21:23
A marmite collection of unique characters and stories.
Homesick for Another World: Stories - Ottessa Moshfegh

Thanks to NetGalley and to Vintage for offering me an ARC copy of this collection that I voluntarily chose to review.

I read Moshfegh’s novel Eileen (nominated for the Booker Prize, read my review here), admired it (perhaps liking it is not the right way to describe it) and I was curious to read more by the same author.  When I saw this book on offer I took the chance.

This collection of short-stories does reinforce some of the thoughts I had about Eileen. Ottessa Moshfegh can write, for sure. If the stories in this collection have anything in common, apart from the quality of the writing, is the type of characters. They all (or most) are lonely, only a few are likeable (they can all be liked, but that’s not what I mean) and easy to relate to, they often have disgusting habits (although I suspect that if our lives were put under a microscope and every last little detail was looked at and written down we might not look very pretty either), and are lost. The characters made me think of Sherwood Anderson and Flannery O’Connor (not the style of writing, though): those people who don’t seem to fit anywhere and are utterly peculiar, although many of the characters in the stories are only peculiar because we get a peep into their brains. One gets the sense that they would appear pretty normal from the outside. A man who lives alone at home, watching telly, and is friendly with the girl living next door. A Maths’ teacher, divorced, who might cheat on the students’ exams. A Yale graduate, who does not know what to do with his life, spends too much money on clothes and gets infatuated with a woman he only met briefly once. A couple of children, twins, telling each other stories. An aspiring actor who can’t get any acting jobs.

Of course, there are other things we discover. The man seems to have a strange interest in the girl next door. The Maths’ teacher drinks so much she keeps a sleeping bag at the school (well, it’s really a room in a church) so she can lie down between classes. The graduate has to sell his clothes in a desperate attempt to get the attention of the woman he is mad about. One of the twins is planning to kill a man. The aspiring actor doesn’t know who Scorsese is (or much about anything) and can’t even kiss a girl on camera. The author digs deep into the characters’ façade and pulls a distorted mirror to them, that like in caricature drawings, emphasises the weirdest characteristics rather than what might make them seem ‘normal’ because normal is a construct after all.

Not many of these stories would fit comfortably into standard definitions of what a short story is supposed to be like. If the author pushes the boundaries with her choice of characters and her descriptions (a lot of them have acne that they squeeze, they are sick or make themselves sick, their bodily functions are described in detail, and some are … well, let’s say ‘alternative’) she does the same with the stories. Quite a few of them seem to be slices of life rather than stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. There are some that have more of a conventional ending (even if it is open ended), but plenty do not and it is up to the reader to decide what, if anything, to make of them. If I had to choose and extract something from the stories (not a lesson as such, but a reflection of sorts) is that perhaps the only characters who end up in a better place or experiencing some sort of happiness (or contentment) are those who don’t try to live up to anybody’s expectations and accept what might appear to be strange alliances and relationships. But perhaps it is just that those are the stories that have stuck more in my head.

Reading the comments, this collection, much like Eileen, is a marmite book. Some people really love it and some hate it with a passion. As I said, the writing is excellent, but you’ll need to have a strong stomach and not mind detailed descriptions of bodily functions and less than flattering individuals (nobody is tall, dark and handsome here, although some characters believe they are). Although many of the stories might feel dispiriting and depressing, this depends on the point of view of the reader and there are very witty lines and funny (but dark) moments.

Here some examples:

‘Oh, okay, there were a few fine times. One day I went to the park and watched a squirrel run up a tree. A cloud flew around the sky.’

‘I had a thing about fat people. It was the same thing I had about skinny people: I hated their guts.’

‘Her face was pinched, as though she’d just smelled someone farting. It was that look of revulsion that awoke something in me. She made me want to be a better man.’

In sum, I wouldn’t dare to recommend this book to everybody, by a long stretch, but if you want to check great writing, have a strong stomach, and don’t mind strange and not always likeable characters and unconventional stories, dare to read on. It will be an utterly unique experience.

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review 2016-12-22 11:01
Eileen - Ottessa Moshfegh Eileen - Ottessa Moshfegh

David Sedaris is pitching this disturbing novel on his book tour and reports he was tipped to it by John Waters, so I absolutely had to check it out, particularly after Sedaris read a particularly distressing account of a lengthy and troubling bowel movement punctuated with the line: "This was the best of times."

And the recommendations from these two twisted masterminds Sedaris and Waters makes perfect sense. This is a colossally honest, brutal, slightly kinky book narrated by a woman growing up somewhere smalltown and distant and perhaps 1960s vintage who has a massive but inexperienced erotic imagination. Most of the time, she is relating the particulars of her narrow experience spent between a home life with an almost comically alcoholic father and her day job at a prison for boys. But there is a point in this novel where a mere two sentences change this novel from a commentary of smalltown manners to something real and explosive that takes the breath away.

The weakness of the book is that it is narrated from a perspective fifty years hence, and the distance is a bit chilling and leaves a large unsatisfying void (which, perhaps, the author will fill with a sequel, since the narrator hints at continued crazy adventures in the years inbetween the events and the narration).

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review 2016-10-27 21:19
A "Marmite" kind of novel
Eileen: A Novel - Ottessa Moshfegh

Thanks to NetGalley and to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, Jonathan Cape, for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I have freely chosen to review.

I confess that I did look at some of the reviews on this novel before writing mine and they are very evenly divided. Some people love it and others can’t stand it. Yes, I guess it’s a Marmite kind of novel. Why? Having checked the novel in several online stores I noticed that it is classified under mystery novels, and if lovers of the genre of mystery read this novel I suspect many of them are bound to feel cheated or disappointed. Literary fiction, which is another one of the categories it is classified under, perhaps is a better fit.

The story is an in-depth look at a character, the Eileen of the title, who is narrating an episode of her own life, in the first person. It is not strictly written as a memoir. As I observed recently when reviewing a novel also told from the point of view of the older character looking back and reflecting at her young self (in that case it was Anne Boleyn), these kinds of books have the added interest for the reader of trying to work out how much of what is being told is filtered by the wishes of the older person to provide a positive portrayal of their young selves. In this case, what is quite shocking is that either that younger Eileen had no endearing features, or the older Eileen is trying to make herself feel better and reassure herself that she’s come a very long way, indeed.

Eileen is a lonely young woman (twenty-four at the time of the episode she describes), whose mother died years back, who has a very superficial relationship with her only sister (who no longer lives at home and who seems to be very different), and who lives with her father, a retired policeman, an alcoholic and paranoid man, who sees hoodlums and conspiracies everywhere. From the mentions she makes of her mother and her past experiences, her childhood was also sad and the opposite of nurturing, with both parents drinking heavily, and neither of them having any interest in family life (and even less in Eileen, as her sister seemed to be the favourite). She lives in a derelict house, drives an old car with exhaust problems, works at a young boy’s prison, and has no friends or hobbies, other than shoplifting and looking at National Geographic magazines. She lives in a world of fantasy, and even her physiological functions are bizarre.

In some ways, the novel reminded me of Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller because of the narrator, who was also very self-absorbed and had no empathy for anybody, although in that case, it wasn’t evident from the star. Here, Eileen sees and observes things carefully as if cataloguing everything that happens, but has nothing good to say about anybody, apart from the people she gets crushes on (however undeserving they might be).

The novel, full of details which can be seen as sad, shocking, or bizarre but humane depending on our point of view, hints from the beginning at something momentous that is going to happen and has influenced the choice of the point at which the story starts. A couple of new employees come to work at the prison and Rebecca, a young and glamorous woman (at least from Eileen’s point of view) becomes Eileen’s new obsession. She tries her best to deserve this woman’s attention and that gets her in some trouble that I guess it the mystery part (and I won’t discuss to avoid spoilers, even though as I said I don’t think the novel fits in that genre easily, although perhaps it shares similarities with some classics of the genre, and I’ve seen mentions of Patricia Highsmith. Ripley, perhaps?). From the reviews, I saw that some readers were disappointed by the ending, although it fits in well with the rest of the book. (And from the point of view of the character, at least, it feels positive.)

The novel is beautifully written (although the content itself is not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination), detailed and fantastically observed, and it works as an impressive psychological study, that had me wondering about all kinds of personality disorder types of diagnosis (although the whole family are depicted as very dysfunctional). It is difficult to empathise with such a character, although she seems to be an extreme representation of somebody with low self-esteem and completely self-obsessed (and at a lesser level, even if we might not feel comfortable acknowledging it, most of us have contemplated some of her thoughts or feelings at some point). She is relentless in her dislike for almost everybody and everything, but even her older self remains unapologetic (and well, it takes guts to just not care at all). I could not help but wonder how much better she is now, despite her words, as her comments indicate that she hasn’t changed an iota. If anything, she’s come into herself. But I guess self-acceptance is a big change for her.

I found it a fascinating novel, a case study of the weird and disturbed, pretty noir, but not a read I would recommend everybody. (After all, I’m a psychiatrist…) It is not a feel-good or a nice novel to read but it might be for you if you like weirdly compelling characters and are happy to go with a narrator who is not sympathetic at all. I don’t think I’ll forget Eileen or its author in a hurry.

 

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text 2016-10-08 10:21
If Only I'd Known
Eileen: A Novel - Ottessa Moshfegh

A deeply unpleasant story about a young woman in America in the nineteen sixties working in a young offenders institute. Her mother is dead. Her father is an alcoholic ex-policeman. Her home life is one of unmitigated squalor. Filled with disgust for her own body, she hates her life and everyone in it. Her only pleasures are consuming laxatives and stalking one of the guards at the prison where she works.

 

When a new, glamorous woman comes to work at the prison, Eileen becomes infatuated and for the first time, she has a friend. The intensity of that friendship culminates in a senseless act of violence.

 

Repetitive, misogynistic (Can a female writer be misogynistic? On the evidence of this novel I'd say, yes) full of clumsy foreshadowing  of the 'if only I'd known' type, the novel's structure consists simply of a long, slow build up to a sudden hurried climax.

 

This novel made the Booker Prize short list which depresses but doesn't surprise me. I want the time back that I wasted on it.

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