If you’ve been thinking of dashing off a thriller in the hope of great success in the book market, then I would have been the first person to stop you. “Never jump on a bandwagon”, I’d have said, along with, “ignore books like Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel.
You can’t ‘dash off’ great writing. But Ottessa Moshfegh ignored such sane suggestions and went right ahead and wrote Aileen
, one of the best Mann-Booker short-listed novels I’ve read in a long time.
After writing with a novella and beginning a debut collection of short stories, she decided not to “wait 30 years to be discovered” and came clean about her writing methods In a recent interview
. “I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined… I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is.”
Having worked through Watt’s advice, she wrote for 60 days to produce an ‘off the peg’ novel. But Moshfegh is too good an author to churn our rubbish. “It turned into a work of its own”, she explains.
Soon as I opened Eileen, I was hooked on the wonderful voice created in this disturbingly dark novel. The narrator is old, reminiscing the past. It’s 1964 and Aileen, at twenty-six, is already on the shelf. She works as a clerk in Moorhead, a penal institution for young men, where she's in lust with Randy, one of the guards; off duty she stalks him, knowing full well he’d never look at her and convinced she would never agree to have sex with him anyway…her first time “would be by force”.
Aileen's self-loathing forbids her to wash regulaly. She dresses in her dead mother’s old clothes and eats frugally, believing herself to be fat and ugly inside and out, purging her system with laxatives. She joins her drunken father each night in drowning out the cruel world. But secretly, she’s saving her father’s pension and dreams of escape.
Moshfegh knows precisely what an unlikable character she’s created. In Vice Magazine she said; “My writing lets people scrape up against their own depravity, but at the same time it’s very refined … It’s like seeing Kate Moss take a shit.” To a degree she seems to be writing from experience; in the past she’s had both drink and eating problems.
The story is told through the device of the interior monologue, or if you prefer, the “retrospective first-person”. The sensation of reading is that of a half-whispered story over a cup of tea…the need to tell someone the secrets of your past, before you die. Reading the first half of the novel as my train pummelled over the Pennine way (and the second half as it roared back to West Wales), it was if Eileen reached one of her thin wrists out from the pages and dragged me into the last week of her life before she left her small town and escaped to New York.
Eileen sees the world from a bleak perspective which has a constant edge of humour. In the packed carriage of my train, I experienced those embarrassing moments – laughing out aloud – time and again. Eileen is a very funny novel. The black irony kept me gripped as much as the promise that her drear life was leading to dreadful violence.
Right from the start, I knew Eileen was not going to come out of this journey as the innocent victim. “This is not a love story”, Aileen says. “I was not a lesbian”, and, “I didn’t eat good food until my second husband” In a delicious nod to Chekhov’s foreshadowing device; “Before I go on describing the events of that Saturday, I should mention the gun.” She hints that there will be terror and bloodshed, and I believed her implicitly because these are her memories, and her urge to confess is palpable.
The festive season is steadily approaching; the contents page tells us that it will all over by Christmas Eve, but the sad festivities are subverted wonderfully by Eileen’s repressively dark mind. It’s her job to decorate the institution’s Christmas tree, while at home, there is not a bauble to be seen, just a dead mouse in her glove compartment.
At this point, Rebecca, a stunning, red-headed graduate, comes to work at Moorhead. Eileen is swept up into a kind of obsession when Rebecca shows an interest in her. Both girls are drawn to an inmate, Polk, who has killed his policeman father. Eileen watches Polk masterbate while in solitary confinement, but Rebecca has access to his notes and, in her role as the new psychologist, believes she can penetrate the young man’s mind to find the truth about him, a decision that is the catalyst to action.
So, if you’re about to start a novel using Watt’s 90 day, or any other formulaic method, do read this book first, checking it out against the standard tips, like Joanna Penn’s: Grab the reader by the throat, have a crime, don’t write likeable characters, have an ending that slaps you in the face. Huge ticks with these. Or my own tip: rock the boat half-way through, as Moshfegh does with her Rebecca character.
This is a psychological thriller, and that’s given Moshfegh good sales, a popular following and some great reviews – Anthony Cummins in the Telegraph
was left “dumbstruck by her sly, almost wicked storytelling genius”. But she also has her critics. Lydia Kiesling in her Guardian review
thought that; “there is something about this novel that, like its heroine, is not quite right…The prose clunks; Eileen is a little too in love with her own awfulness.” Yes, I noted that failing too, early in the text. Things like, I was very unhappy and angry all the time
. Moshfegh has fallen into the trap of ‘telling not showing’. But it’s a very little slip, the sort we all make at some point when writing hundreds of pages of story. Mostly, the book is all ‘show', a vivid picture of 60’s USA, of the edges of society, of mental health, and of how easy it is to lose one’s own integrity, or have it stolen away.
Eileen might be thought of as an unreliable narrator, but I found nothing but the truth in the heated depths of the text. I believed in her completely. She may be flawed, but she felt like an intensely real, if bleak, creation. In that, I seem to agree with Moshfegh; “Eileen is not perverse. I think she’s totally normal … I haven’t written a freak character; I’ve written an honest character.”
And honest character who has committed the most awful crime, that is...