Thursday, November 17, 2016

What did the In-store Lit Group think of Ottessa Moshfegh's "Eileen?"

Eileen Dunlop, a young Massachusetts woman has a job at a prison. Her mother is dead, her father is an alcoholic, her coworkers are awful, and don't forget, she works at a prison. She dreams of bigger things, like moving to New York, but it's hard to imagine she can ever accomplish them. And then a new counselor starts working at the prison, and her charisma ropes her into a twisty scheme.

In some ways, Eileen will remind readers of other books we've read this year. I'd call it a cross between Rebecca Scherm's Unbecoming and Helen Oyeyemi's Boy Snow Bird. Moshfegh has already won accolades for her short fiction, which I think you'd categorize as experimental, and wrapped around a psychological suspense plotline, the results were apparently a big win. Eileen was shortlist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, and received the PEN Hemingway Award, which is given to debut fiction. The judges were Joshua Ferris (who has appeared at Boswell twice*), Jay Parini (who appeared at Schwartz once. When I was in college, I used to pass his office periodically, but I never met him), and Alexandra Marshall (whose work includes 1981's Tender Offer and 1985's Brass Bed).

As a result of these accolades (or perhaps accompanying them), Eileen has been selling very well in the indie market. I looked at two books we were selling pretty well this fall, and while we were #1 for sales on Above the Treeline for one, we're not even in the top 20 for Eileen. It's possible that while I consider us to have at least a slice of the sophisticated and somewhat edgy reading population, we still might be hampered by being in the Midwest. Said a sales rep to me (not the one who sold us Eileen), it's the kind of book that's published by a large press yet somehow retained its indie credibility, and benefits from having it both ways.

So here's the thing. Of our 15 attendees, I would say only four of us liked Eileen, and I was one of likers. About half of the remaining attendees felt mixed about the story, but there was a great deal of animus from the other half. Like the time we read Liam Callanan's All Saints, I wondered how different this conversation would have gone had we been reading the book with folks in their twenties and thirties. Or even forties!

Eileen is a fascinating character study. I didn't expect this to be the kind of book I'd call compelling reading, but I wound up reading it with almost no breaks, and I generally like a good break. I'm not sure I thought that the suspense angle was developed that well, something that Lily King also ponders in her essay in The New York Times Book Review. I only mention that because Moshfegh said in an interview that she was trying to write a plot-driven suspense novel, but this seemed to be introduced relatively late in the game, and in the end, might not have been necessary for me. But it absolutely was necessary to have film rights optioned by Scott Rudin, with the producer hiring the screenwriter (Erin Cressida Wilson) from The Girl on the Train adaptation to adapt it. Read more in The Hollywood Reporter.

One thing that was interesting was that two of the four folks who did really like the book worked in the social services field, and they found Eileen's character true and compelling, whereas folks who were removed from that world didn't find it as believeable. We wound up having that classic conversation about unlikeable narrators, which I guess should now becalled the official The Woman Upstairs argument, named after Claire Messud's novel. I think this would be a great selection for social workers or other service professionals to read, unless they were the kind of book club who preferred a story that intersected less with their daily lives.

One point of discussion was the reliability of Eileen's narrative. What could we believe and what should we discount? We also pondered the fate of one character - was that person left dead or alive at the end of the story? And while we know Eileen's fate (three husbands!), as she's telling the story looking back, we wondered what happened to the rest of them.

Suzanne mentioned Heavenly Creatures, the Australian film that was about two girls who murder the mother of one of them, and one of the participants turned out to be Anne Perry, the mystery writer. Another attendee was reminded of the Coen Brothers work. And my thoughts about Unbecoming and Boy, Snow, Bird were valid, at least one level. All three writers were influneced by Hitchcock, with Scherm using To Catch a Thief as a jumping off point, Boy, Snow, Bird referencing Vertigo, and Moshfegh inspired by the Hitchcock film version of Rebecca, as opposed to the Daphne Du Maurier novel. Read more about this in Harper's Bazaar.

And if you're keeping track on one side or the other of the cultural appropriation debate, Moshfegh is Croatian and Iranian, but her heroine is Irish. (Addendum: no, I'm wrong! The name is Scottish. My apologies.) Still I wonder if that's part of the reason the novel got such a negative review in the Irish Times, from Eileen Battersby. She calls it "A poor man's American Psycho," but not only do I not see this, I can't figure out why you would reference a 30-year-old novel (except of course that the London stage adaptation probably revived consciousness, something that the failed American production did not do). Addendum: so my argument fell apart but it's still culturally related. Discuss!

Next up, the In-store Lit Group is reading The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild, on Monday, December 5, and then we're reading Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen on Monday, January 2, both at 7 pm. McKenzie will be at Boswell on Monday, January 23. Regarding the Rothschild, we're probably going to have to talk about that book jacket!

*It's a big and rare thing to me when an author has three novels and I've read all of them, and I'm proud to say I can say that about Joshua Ferris.

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