Novel delights in shocking its audience
“Eileen” is a novel of delay. Ottessa Moshfegh’s title character is now an old woman, narrating a pivotal moment in her early adulthood. From the beginning, she hints at a shocking event to be revealed, but the fuse leading up to that event burns slowly.
It isn’t just her story that Eileen seeks to delay. As a young woman disgusted by her own body, she went to great lengths to delay various bodily functions, to detract attention from her physical form, and to lust — obliquely and hopelessly — for a coworker.
Though her younger self was ashamed of her body’s needs, the older narrator seems to take delight in sharing the details with her reader:
“The sluggishness of my bowels was a constant preoccupation. There was a complex science to eating and evacuating, balancing the rising intensity of my constipated discomfort with the catharsis of my laxative-induced purges. I knew I should drink water, eat healthful food, but I really didn’t like to drink water or eat healthful foods. I found fruits and vegetables detestable, like eating a bar of soap or a candle. I also suffered from that unfortunate maladjustment to puberty — still at 24 — that made me ashamed of my womanliness.”
It is Eileen’s voice — revealing unsavory details, wallowing in her despair, slow to get to the crux of her story — that captivates the reader, even at the most off-putting moments. Moshfegh turns the reader into a voyeur, providing the shocked audience for which her narrator clearly longs.