Bored to Life

Eileen: A Novel BY Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.

The cover of Eileen: A Novel

Ottessa Moshfegh’s narrators exhibit a curious combination of extreme moral nihilism and a desperate need for violent, unforgettable experiences. Eileen, her new and best novel, is a love story told by a young woman who doesn’t understand love and who is leaving behind the only man she really loves, her father. Eileen hates her father, too. He is an abusive alcoholic, who bullies and even assaults his teenage daughter: “In my last years with him my father would occasionally wrap his flat hands around my pencil-thin throat and threaten that he could squeeze the life out of me any time he felt like it.” Eileen, both disturbed and disturbing, flees her home early on, but not for the reasons you’d expect. She wonders if she might have stayed in her small town—curiously named X-ville—if her father had only been a bit more violent.

Eileen’s problem is that she finds life boring; what Eileen never considers—and this is where Moshfegh’s gifts for dramatic irony and moral subtlety are especially apparent—is that Eileen herself may be boring. X-ville and her father are pretty horrible, but the real problem is just . . . Eileen. Moshfegh shows us, with this character, the dangerous connections between boredom and nihilism. Eileen has no real convictions, no real aspirations. She’s like Nietzsche’s “last man,” who asks, “What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?” and then blinks. Only one thing makes sense to her: sensations. She wants experience, especially physical, material experience.

Boredom is Moshfegh’s great theme and her aesthetic: As yellow was Dostoyevsky’s color—the color of anxiety and despair—Moshfegh writes in grays, gloomy greens, in twilight colors. She captures a feeling familiar to many of us (at least to many white Westerners), whether we’re forty-seven-year-old philosophy professors or, like Eileen, confused, lonely, twenty-four-year-old shoplifters. (I’ve been both.) I want quickly to add that I was never bored while reading Eileen: The book is enormously entertaining and funny, even during its many cringe-inducing moments. It’s actually a page-turner. But it’s also what you might call “a phenomenology of boredom”: Like Beckett, who famously complained that a performance of Happy Days was “not really boring enough,” Moshfegh wants to remind us how painful boredom really is, how hungry and irritable it makes you.

Because her narrators have such a hunger for experience—especially, I think, the experience of love—Moshfegh is at her best when she’s describing erotic desire. When she tries to describe violence, she doesn’t always convince me. But sex? Listen to this:

On my way back to the car, I passed a narrow alley and saw a teenage couple kissing—“petting” as we called it. I remember the scene clearly. I caught sight of them the moment the girl’s tongue slid into the boy’s mouth. I was so impressed. The soft pink color of the girl’s tongue, the way the clean winter light reflected on its sleek surface, and the contrast in its color and texture to the pure, aquiline face, so beautiful. Sitting in my car . . . such erotic force seemed impossible.

That girl’s tongue keeps on sliding into the boy’s mouth everywhere Eileen’s eyes wander, and in that tongue is the terrific power and honesty of Moshfegh’s prose: Her narrator, perhaps an artist in the making but with no creative outlet, wants to devour the whole world. Eileen is never going to be satisfied that she has enough experience, whether she stays in little towns or moves to New York, LA, or Tokyo. Everywhere she goes, she’s going to feel unsatisfied, she’s going to want more, she’s going to sense that somehow what she’s getting isn’t enough.

There are other great narrators who remind me of Eileen: Meursault in The Stranger, Marcel in Remembrance of Things Past, Clay in Less than Zero. I think we expect this pathology of dissatisfaction, ennui, and frustrated need in a certain brand of narcissistic male hero, but in a female narrator it is more disturbing, more interesting, and more exciting. Her hunger lends her a perceptiveness you won’t find in a more content character. Her observations are always a bit too disturbing, too repellent—but they are never blithe, silly, or conventional. She has that scalpel-like, cynical intelligence and insight that one gets with a blistering hangover. And maybe that’s what Moshfegh is trying to show: how much suffering goes on inside the head, when the head doesn’t know where to go.

Though there is much to identify with in this novel, Eileen is more sinister than the rest of us (or, at least, I hope she is), and Moshfegh’s portrait of extreme disaffectedness serves in part as a warning. It’s certainly true that many of the world’s problems—prejudice, hatred, acts of terrorism—are caused by dogmatic convictions. But Moshfegh shows that an utter absence of belief may be just as psychologically dangerous. Eileen fantasizes about killing her father, and imagines improbable deaths for him in vivid detail. She indulges herself in excesses of frustrated impotence: bizarre sexual fantasies (significantly, she’s still a virgin—she won’t live even that much) and equally vivid and unusual spates of self-loathing, especially about her appearance. But for all that, she’s also very familiar: Eileen is like many of us, only more so.

When Eileen tells us that she is leaving X-ville with no regrets, we believe her. She doesn’t have anything to regret because, in a funny way, she doesn’t have any sincere expectations. She’s always already disappointed. But as with any great skeptic, that’s not going to stop her. Now that she’s on the road, she’s going to stay there. The closest Eileen is going to get to love is her vague, endless quest for it. And the only way this numb young woman is going to experience belief is to search for others with convictions, the stronger the better. It’s a scary idea, but it also has the bitter taste of reality. We might not like Eileen’s world, but it’s not that far from the one we live in. She’s simply taken distraction and dissatisfaction to an extreme. In this sense, Moshfegh has written a beautiful novel that tells the truth.

Clancy Martin is the author of the novel How to Sell (2009) and the philosophical memoir Love and Lies (2015; both Farrar, Straus and Giroux).