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7 October 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 4:05pm

The art of loathing: is Eileen the least likeable protagonist in fiction?

Accomplished, audacious and, by the end, as gripping as an airport noir, Eileen also works as a parable of female emancipation.

By Jude cook

Even readers with a high tolerance for unreliable, misanthropic, or psychotic narrators (think The Collector, The Wasp Factory, God’s Own Country) might baulk at Eileen Dunlop, the protagonist of Ottessa Moshfegh’s compulsive, Man Booker-shortlisted debut novel. By the end of the book, one has supped so full of her corrosive jealousy and toxic scorn that one feels in need of an emetic. Yet it is telling that all of the earlier novels feature male voices; that the protagonist here is female increases the sense of transgression and thrilling voyeurism. Like Nora Eldridge in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, pilloried for being “unsympathetic”, Eileen doesn’t even attempt to make us like her. She is hell-bent on having her unflinching say in full; and like a passenger in a car going past a road accident, you’ll find it hard to turn away.

Eileen tells her story fifty years after the main action has occurred. This takes place over a week in December 1964 in the Massachusetts suburb she calls X-Ville, where she lives alone with her paranoid, gin-soused, ex-cop father. Having dropped out of university, she is working at a correctional facility for young boys, and spends her days fantasising about the gormless beefcake warder Randy and indulging in poisonous flights of misandry. She is obsessed with her bodily functions (it takes a while to forget the page on her epic constipation) and clearly “loathes everybody”. Eileen simply hates people – her parents, her colleagues, herself. She doesn’t even like dogs, though she cried more tears over the death of her Scottish terrier than that of her mother: “My mother was mean and that dog was nice. One doesn’t need a college degree.”

Deeply contrarian, she worries that boys don’t “find her attractive” and sees beautiful actresses as a personal affront, making her feel “ugly and lacklustre and ineffectual”, yet imagines herself superior to all around her. And although she is candid about the “formative trauma” of her casual sexual abuse, aged 12, at the hands of her father’s fellow police officer at a family barbecue, she vaguely longs to be raped: “I’d always believed that my first time would be by force.”

Only when the vampish Rebecca Saint John arrives at the prison – a Gilda straight from central casting – does the book accelerate from nihilistic, voice-driven inertia into the taut thriller it has promised to become from the start. Though she desperately wants to impress and seduce Rebecca, Eileen predictably ends up doing the opposite, sending her deeper into troglodytic squalor. Sex, death, revenge and abuse run like dark currents beneath every page and come together in a brilliantly sustained denouement in which all the novel’s motifs, from icicles to bodily cleanliness, cohere and resonate. It’s an ending that makes you ponder human morality, and whether it will ever progress beyond “an eye for an eye”.

A few clunky signposts disqualify this from being a first-rate genre novel, but there’s enough finesse and icy poise in the tightly controlled prose to earn the book its place as a Man Booker finalist. This is evinced in Moshfegh’s eerie facility for the commonplace phrase. When, early on, the clichés multiply – the heroine’s thoughts go “racing”, wind is “biting”, a complexion is “wan” – one wonders what the author is up to. It’s only later we realise that Moshfegh, like Bret Easton Ellis with Patrick Bateman, is ventriloquising Eileen’s voice perfectly: the journal of a self-hating, narcissistic sociopath would be equally full of dismal banalities and slack phrases.

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Accomplished, audacious and, by the end, as gripping as an airport noir, Eileen also works as a parable of female emancipation. Tracking the heroine’s attempt to get free from patriarchal control (there is a telling moment when the paramedics shake hands only with her father), it offers a strong case for female autonomy, and this is made all the more potent by the book’s early-Sixties context. Eileen is a femme libre, unworried that she has no aspirations to marriage and children. A half-century later, this confers a rare wisdom: “A grown woman is like a coyote – she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness.” And she has little forgiveness for her abuser, saying with chilling certainty: “I’m sure you paid for it somehow. Everyone does, eventually.”

Eileen has been alternately praised and disparaged for its candid first-person voice. It revels in almost pornographic fantasises of control, revenge and abasement, yet is finally a triumphant novel, slyly testing our own tolerance against a character who, by the end, feels scarily believable. Pyrotechnicians past and present such as William Burroughs and Michel Houellebecq choose noisy depravity, but sometimes it’s the quiet, insinuating voices, like Moshfegh’s, that linger longest in the imagination.

Jude Cook is the author of “Byron Easy” (William Heinemann)

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Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is published by Vintage (260pp, £8.99)

This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph