‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh (2015) – 260 pages
I want to explain to you what Dirty Realism is, because ‘Eileen’ is the best novel of Dirty Realism I have read in a long, long time. ‘Eileen’ is a must-read. I came across the following definition of ‘Dirty Realism’ in an article about Tobias Wolff by Claire Allfree in Metro magazine:
“Depictions of ordinary people, using transparent prose that gets uncomfortably close to the fabric of the characters’ lives.”
Usually the term ‘Dirty Realism’ was applied to short stories, but ‘Eileen’ is a novel, a sustained performance. It is so honest it is uncomfortable.
The 24-year-old woman Eileen in ‘Eileen’ doesn’t get out much. She stays at her New England home taking care of her drunk abusive father who is an ex-cop and thus well-respected in the community. Eileen’s cruel mother died a painful death a couple of years ago. Occasionally Eileen goes to a movie by herself telling her father she is going out with friends, but her father won’t believe her. She has no friends. Eileen works at a boys’ detention center where teenage boys are imprisoned for committing some horrific crime like burning down the family home or murdering a parent or sibling.
“There was a reason I worked at the prison; after all, I wasn’t exactly a pleasant person.”
Eileen’s thoughts reverberate with negativity toward herself. What makes ‘Eileen’ special is the provocative and disturbing voice of Eileen. There is nothing girlish or perky about Eileen. We’ve had enough of those. Eileen’s voice is real.
“I was unattractive in temperament most of all, but many men don’t seem to care about things like that.”
Here is Eileen describing her body:
“So just for laughs, here I am again, my little virginal body at age twenty-four. My shoulders were small and sloped and knobbly. My chest was rigid, a taut drum of bones I thudded with my fist like an ape. My breasts were lemon-size and hard and my nipples were sharp like thorns. But I was really just all ribs, and so thin that my hips jutted out awkwardly and were often bruised from bumping in to things. My guts were still cramped from the ice cream and eggs from the day before. The sluggishness of my bowels was a constant preoccupation.”
The novel takes place in 1964 with Eileen many years later telling her story from back then. Things change for Eileen when Rebecca Saint-John starts working as the first ever prison director of education. Rebecca immediately befriends Eileen.
“I prefer being sort of flat-chested, don’t you? Women with big bosoms are always so bashful. That, or else they think that their figures are all that matters. Pathetic.”
As I said before, the novel ‘Eileen’ is Dirty Realism with a vengeance. The writer Raymond Carver, a writer also well worth reading, is considered the King of Dirty Realism. According to Stuart Evers in the Guardian, Carver wrote “pared-down tales of urban dismay, of losers and liars, of drunks who never know when to stop.” Despite this being her first novel and despite there being other fine female dirty realists like Jayne Ann Phillips and Joy Williams, I am compelled to call Ottessa Moshfegh the new Queen of Dirty Realism.