Ottessa Moshfegh is comfortable with discomfort—especially yours. After running laps around the competition on the short story circuit and catching praise from the likes of Rivka Galchen for her drunken sailor novella McGlue, she’s making her debut as a novelist with Eileen, out this week via Penguin.
Eileen is a brutal character study disguised as a sordid mystery. Like a poison apple, the plot (and jacket copy) cry thriller, the kind of thing you’d gobble up at the shore over Labor Day weekend, but the meat of this book is something else entirely. It produces a kind of vital stomach ache you won’t soon shake.
Set in New England, where Moshfegh, 34, grew up, Eileen unfolds around Christmas 1964. The title character is a 24-year-old woman who lives with her drunk father, works at a juvenile detention center for young men, and fantasizes about death and violence (dealt to her, and others). Garish scenes of bodily harm pinwheel through her head with as much regularity as her persistent dreams of cutting and running from her chilly hometown. She’s deep in her feelings and looking for a way out. Escape arrives in the form of Rebecca, a dashing cosmopolitan figure who arrives at the boys’ prison and cozies up to lonesome Eileen, setting into motion the nefarious business the book hinges upon.
Tempting plot machinations aside, you should be reading Moshfegh because she writes incredible sentences, the kind that build and build to create a warped momentum you can’t brake. They create a harsh, blackly humorous world, like Mary Gaitskill, but less grave and with more jokes.
This ability to set careening the whole apparatus of a paragraph extends to the macro level of Moshfegh’s storytelling. For instance, “Bettering Myself,” one of the stories that earned her a Plimpton Prize, takes subject matter that sends up all sorts of writing workshop red flags (a heavy drinking protagonist, a classroom setting) and then makes the precise amount of left turns that indicate idiosyncratic talent and elevate the material to greatness. Pick up Eileen, but understand that you won’t know what you’re getting yourself into until the end.
Gawker Review of Books spoke with Moshfegh about the genesis of Eileen, living in order to write, and black market English-language learning tapes in China.
Gawker: Reading Eileen, it occurred to me that it’s a coming of age story, it’s a noir, it’s got gothic elements—how do you think of it?
Ottessa Moshfegh: As a writer, I was thinking of using classical elements of the novel in order to force people to sit through things that they wouldn’t be comfortable sitting through if they didn’t feel like they were at home in a familiar story. In some ways, I felt that I was playing with genre, and in other ways I was abusing it.
Which genres were you playing with?
The cliché of “Once upon a time…”; the coming of age story; the leaving home story; and also the dark thriller element of the “mysterious woman,” the crime story, the noir. You know, there’s a gun in the book. [Laughs.] Those elements became tools to build a different kind of story—the one I wanted to write—of what it’s like being a young woman when your role in your family and society doesn’t match up with who you really are.
Is that what you were referring to when you mentioned the things the reader wouldn’t otherwise feel comfortable sitting through?
Most people who pick up a book labeled “thriller” or “mystery” may not be expecting to confront troubling ideas about women in society. Eileen is not a very palatable character for the mainstream. There’s a lot of implied condemnation in the book, and I needed a mainstream pretext for Eileen to have a chance at existing. I couldn’t be like, “Here’s my freak book, meant to offend your fucked up sensibilities.” I don’t know, I guess that’s what the book will be to many people, as it should be. I’ve found that people get particularly frustrated and shut down when women in fiction are disgusting or disordered. So I’ve disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package. And to me, structuring the story as a conservative narrative makes the writing more perverse. Not that I think Eileen is perverse. I think she’s totally normal, and that’s the great irony of the book for me. I haven’t written a freak character; I’ve written an honest character. Hers is the kind of neurotic energy that most people suffer from, and hide. It’s not socially acceptable to talk about it in this frank way, except maybe to a therapist. All the good that will do you.
I think there are universal aspects to her. She’s obviously a young woman in very specific context, but her fixation on her body, the kind of scrutiny she puts herself through—that resonated with me.
Puberty extends into your twenties, for sure, and some people don’t get over that until much later in life. I feel like I’m just starting to get over puberty, basically twenty years of insufferable, totally self-obsessed hell. Eileen is in the throes of that development, and it’s a cruel world on top of that. Sort of a double whammy.
I can’t say that it necessarily solved anything, but it helped me understand my leaving my home of origin, and that being a necessary trauma. It was a way for me to acknowledge my experience as a physical being in a female body, and how difficult that is when having this body makes me second class. It helped me realize one of the voices I want to have in the world, and what conversations I could start that would be helpful to people. By nature, shame and secrecy are hard to talk about, so why not be someone who brings those to the table, to talk about shit without shame and secrecy? Because we all suffer from it.
So did the novel come from the character of Eileen? What was the genesis of this novel?
The genesis of the novel actually came from the character of Lee Polk, who is based on a real case. [The case] horrified me and stuck with for about a year. It was lodged in my brain and when I sat down to write the novel, I couldn’t ignore it. So that inspired the prison setting, and Eileen’s character just came about organically.
I was imagining what it would be like if I had been born 40 years before I was in New England, and if I had had a different family. I didn’t have Eileen’s experience growing up with a drunk Irish cop dad. My dad is a gentle and brilliant Iranian violinist. But it was easy and disturbing to imagine and that’s part of why it was interesting for me to write Eileen. We have some things in common, but also major differences.
The dual narrative perspective in Eileen is interesting to me. You have 24-year-old Eileen, who the reader is closely attached to, and then there’s older Eileen, who has changed in pretty major ways, but you only get flashes of what happened to her in between those two states. It was moving to me, the kind of privacy built into the perspective, the idea that she doesn’t give the reader access to this part of her life.
Because she’s learned some self-respect by then, and she is a different person in many ways.
Is that what 24-year-old Eileen is fundamentally lacking? Self-respect?
I definitely think young Eileen lacks self-respect. She lacks respect, in general. Nobody in her life respects her, except for Rebecca, and then only seemingly. The narrator’s privacy about her life [when she’s older] feels like a mark of maturity. Stories about younger people are always so much more dramatic, the struggle is so much more cinematic and intense. It’s funny when we look back on the struggles of youth sometimes, but when we’re going through it, it’s very painful. I’m not in my seventies yet, but I imagine—or I hope—that when I get there I won’t always have to be going through hell and processing it all the time. Which I had to do constantly in my twenties.
What was your life like when you were 24?
I think 24 was the year I quit drinking. I was living in New York and had some shitty job I hated. I knew I was a writer, but I had just moved back from China a couple years before that. It was an important year, I guess. I can’t even remember it, it was ten years ago.
When did the writing become the thing of paramount importance in your life—if it even is?
I’ve always known what I’m meant to do. The path of my life has been about discovering what I need to do to support myself as a writer. I had to make room for myself and my work, and figure out how much bullshit I could tolerate. Having clarity of mind is a precondition for doing anything well, and that means far more than just not getting drunk, or taking vitamins or whatever. Living an interesting life is a precondition to being an interesting person. That’s what’s so funny to me about the people going into MFA programs, trying to be good writers. Are you an interesting person? Unless you’re really interesting, no matter how much “craft” or whatever nonsense your teachers feed you, your writing will be boring and useless. I can’t be hanging out with people like that, who enforce the status quo. I need to be with people who challenge and inspire me and support me as I grow. I’m not talking about only being friends with great writers or artists, although that’s been crucial to me, too. I mean not hanging out with frightened people. I say this because it was an important move I had to make, away from the miserable fucks who would never appreciate me. I need to be around people I respect and admire, the people who are brave enough to rise up out of the shit.
When people are in shit, they get jealous and weird if you’re not eating their shit with them, I don’t like it. Being a writer, an artist, that’s a calling. People don’t seem to get that—there are industries built up for people for whom writing isn’t a calling, so they can learn how to fake it. I’m not a fake, so being in institutions has always been unpleasant, although I couldn’t have afforded to write without funding from a few schools. It’s funny, it’s been very hard for me to negotiate any kind of psychic equanimity with my peers. Well, I’ve always been a lurker on the edges of society, a spy of sorts, looking at the world like, “What a weird show.” I get bored easily. I don’t think I could’ve lived or grown up any other way but through my writing, including working toward writing being my “profession.” Well, it’s really more like a religion. Writing has always been my first priority, only second to my health.
In my late twenties, I got really, really sick for a year and lost the ability to write much. I had an infectious disease, cat scratch fever, and I was seizing and having migraines and twitching and sweating, and I couldn’t think straight. My hands were going numb. Very hard to write during that period. It was a sad, but a spiritual time in my life. I became an animal. I had to quit my job and move home with my mom. I didn’t really get out of bed for months and when I did, it was like, “I’m not wasting time working for anyone else. I don’t care if it means I’m gonna be broke. I’d rather be living alone in some Podunk town than living in New York and being a slave just to live there and hate myself for it, when all I want to do is write and be free.”
The next year I moved out of New York.
Where did you move?
I moved to Providence. When I was sick, I applied to Brown. It was the one school I applied to, kind of because it was the only school that I knew would pay me. I didn’t do any research. I knew Robert Coover’s work and Brian Evenson’s work a little. And I’d heard Brown had a reputation for being weird, and that sounded good. I went and it was like the universe gave me this ticket: “Get busy writing.”
One of the things I think Eileen is about, on a low level, is having a shitty job. What’s the shittiest job you’ve ever had?
Oh, god. I’ve been really lucky with jobs. I am a really fucking lucky person. I tend to meet interesting, cool people, and know how to befriend them. But the worst job? I don’t want to piss anyone off, but I can tell you that the oddest job I ever had was being a voice actor in China. I co-owned this bar in the city of Wuhan, and one day these people walked in, and they said, “We heard you’re an American. We need someone to record our English-language learning tapes, and we’ll pay you.” I was like, “Okay.” [Laughs.] The next morning, a driver comes and picks me up and takes me on this hour-long ride through what looks like a nuclear disaster site—literally, through the rubble and smoke—to a bizarre abandoned concrete building, and I’m thinking, “This is an interesting place to die.”
But it turned out that they were just renting a space, had set up a recording studio there, were very professional in fact. I did that for three months and I’m now on I don’t know how many weird black market English-language learning tapes in China. The funny part was when they needed a male voice, they’d show up at my bar and ask any random white man to come and work for them. Once they chose this guy with the thickest Scottish accent you’ve ever heard. He was indecipherable. Even I couldn’t understand him. So he really screwed over a lot of Chinese students.
There’s a whole segment of the population in China whose English is warped now.
Yep. But they could get by in Scotland.
Someone should tell Scotland so they can set up some sort of exchange program with China.
If there was a “learn to talk with a Scottish accent” tape, I would totally buy it. It would be really cool to speak English in a way that no one could understand here.
What are you reading right now?
I have been reading Scott Spencer’s novel Endless Love, and it is blowing my mind. It’s from 1979 and it’s about, well, it’s about endless love. I have to say, it has the best sex scenes probably in literary history. This book should’ve been fucking banned here, given the general American terror of anything remotely sexually interesting. Not only is it graphic and beautiful, it goes places that most people would never go. There’s a ten page description of having sex with this girl on her period in a hotel room. Going down on her as she’s getting her period, and it’s got every little detail. They end up stealing the sheets. It’s wonderful.
That sounds amazing.
There are scenes that could turn you on, but there’s something so—I don’t want to say creepy, because that feels pejorative—but something so vulnerable about the narrator in his endless love. You get a real sense of the power of need and emotion that usually feels false to me in books or in movies. It’s like watching someone play Russian Roulette with a loaded gun. You can see he’s being idiotic, delusional, cruising for disaster. It’s thrilling.
Carl Sekaras is a former teacher and sometimes writer living in Queens.
[Photos via the author]