Review of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Why do people read literary fiction?

I ask myself this whenever I try to define the difficult term “literary fiction.” I think of Philip Roth and John Updike most readily. I see that Moshfegh manages to impress literary readers while also capturing a large audience, ie, being a bestseller. But unlike Roth or Updike, I feel like her work is more fluid, less samey.
This is the first thing of hers I’ve read, and it was standard 1st person literary fiction. Nothing that hadn’t been done before. It was a tad more intimate (grosser) than average, and had a quick pace and compelling voice. Contrasted with my recent read of Liar, Dreamer, Thief, I much prefer this book, which did not talk down to its reader. The titular main character was more realistic in my opinion.

I return to and rephrase the question: Why do we like to read about miserable people who sadly shuffle through meaningless existences? Franzen and others help us tackle this difficult quandary in countless iterations of men and women cheating on one another and making fools of themselves in public. The sub-genre of this also mix in race relations and historical atrocities, just to add fuel to the fire of suffering and distinctly human cruelty.

Moshfegh came off as genuine in her portrayal of a sloppy woman, living messily, in a messed-up world. Alcoholic fathers and dying mothers have become cliches, but what works best amid the unremitting bleakness of the setting is the strong voice. It is not concise or overly elegant, but it does its job of carrying the reader through the typical scenarios with verve. We live vicariously through characters like this.

I appreciated the frank and telling depiction of life’s gruesome hardships and felt the struggle of a woman trying and failing to make something of a depressing life. It had its highs and lows, but I can recommend the book to anyone with a strong stomach and a pulse. It rises above the trillion other hard-luck stories out there and indicates a talent ready to operate within and outside the norm.

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