Anna Pigott reviews Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Lesser Bohemians by our favourite Eimear McBride.
Two great books by women published this year
Eileen Ottessa Moshfegh, (Jonathan Cape, 2016)
The Lesser Bohemians, Eimear McBride (Faber, 2016)
I looked like a girl you’re expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair. […] I looked like nothing special.
Thus, innocuously, begins Ottessa Moshfegh’s Man Booker prize-nominated debut novel Eileen. What is quickly revealed, however, is that it’s central character is something special indeed. In fact, what is striking about this book is just how starkly it shows us how very conventional the female characters we are used to reading really are…
Eileen is a young woman in her early twenties, living in a coastal New England Town in what we assume to be the late 1950s or early 60s. In the first few pages we learn that her Mother has died, that she lives her life dutifully caring for an alcoholic father and dreams of making her escape. So far, so unsurprising, until on the fifth page Moshfegh hits the reader with a passage that made me sit bolt-upright, realising joyously that Eileen is not your typical, meek and long-suffering heroine:
I am not one of those women who try to make people happy all the time. I’m not that strategic. If you’d seen me back then with a barrette in my hair, my mousy gray wool coat, you’d have expected me to be just a minor character in this saga—conscientious, even-tempered, dull, irrelevant. I looked like a shy and gentle soul from afar, and sometimes I wish I was one. […] but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s. It was easy to hide behind the dull face I wore, moping around. I really thought I had everybody fooled. And I didn’t really read books about flower or home economics. I liked books about awful things—murder, illness, death.
The inner monologue delivered by Moshfegh recalls both Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers, 20th Century American female writers termed ‘Southern Gothic’, noted for their characters’ grotesquerie and considered at the forefront of queer literature, creating characters who bucked gender binaries. Eileen is very much in tune with this defiant, queer and almost punk aesthetic – she panders to no one, taking perverse pleasure in neither washing nor cleaning her house and wearing her dead mother’s clothes. She doesn’t weep over her father’s alcoholism, but instead joins him in drinking sessions and suffers the consequential hangovers.
Eileen’s own narrative voice is an insistent presence – the story is shaped by an older Eileen, presumably in the present day, reflecting on her younger self. The story inhabits multiple genres, at its core being quite simply a (hilarious) coming-of-age portrait of an awkward young woman. At the same time the plot is driven by a noir-esque tone, with its constant suggestion of a dark and dramatic event looming on the horizon.
The narrator-protagonist is insistent in reminding the reader that an event is to come, with constant hints (‘If I had known what was to come’ etcetera). I won’t give any more away about the much awaited dénouement, save to say that it eventually comes on what is page 222 of 259 in my copy. Of course the gradual building of suspense makes for pleasurable reading – but I would say the weighting of the narrative does more than this. As well as the accumulation of tension, the narrator takes time for numerous asides and reflections, as well as overt references to her own centrality in her story, like the above ‘you’d have expected me to be just a minor character in this saga’. If the reader gets the sense that, structurally, the climax of the plot comes somewhat later that in a conventional novel or film, perhaps this is yet another instance in which Eileen staunchly refuses to fulfil anyone’s expectations of her – and perhaps a reflection on the power inherent in telling one’s own story.
The practice of storytelling by various means is also a major theme in The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride – and the author’s own innovative narrative style has seen her celebrated as one of the most exciting writers in a generation.
McBride’s second novel centres around a young Irish woman coming to study drama in London in the 1990s. Though the protagonist’s relationship with an older, well established actor (who at first remains nameless) McBride explores her characters’ interior life and personal history with her trademark dexterity. As they become more entangled in each other’s lives, dark secrets begin to unfold. Meanwhile, the novel’s setting provides a snapshot of Camden in the 90s, through its pubs and parties, complete with recreational drugs, dodgy landlords and regrettable sexual encounters.
The Lesser Bohemians follows McBride’s debut novel, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press, 2013). Scandalously, it took 9 years for its author to find a publisher for this brilliant account of a young girl growing up in Ireland, finding her way through the tortures of an abusive home life, her brother’s childhood brain tumor, and navigating her nascent sexuality. When the novel was finally released, it was awarded accolades including Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and the Goldsmiths Prize (an award for which The Lesser Bohemians has also since been nominated), prompting Anne Enright to declare ‘Eimear McBride is that old fashioned thing, a genius’ (The Guardian, 20 September 2013).
Part of McBride’s genius, and perhaps part of the reason publishers lacked the nerve to put her work out, is her distinctive prose style, which throws off conventional sentence structures, instead combining words instinctively, anarchically, in order to create the impression, the physical feeling McBride wants to convey; ‘Here’s to be for its life it the bite and would be the start of mine’; ‘Nine brings the day. Dampened to fresh-cheeked I go up the stone steps, in amid the already-belonged’; ‘Float up of stories. Legs gone serene’.
Jacqueline Rose writes that ‘more or less single-handed, McBride has taken us back to the experiment of modernism and ushered it into an eviscerating new phase’ (London Review of Books, Vol. 38 No. 18, 22 September 2016). Though McBride can clearly be placed within a modernist tradition, she does more than merely echo her forebears. Her writing is often likened to Samuel Beckett or James Joyce (comparisons made more readily due to these writers sharing McBride’s Irish background). However, while while Joyce deliberately heaped layers of literary allusions into his works – joking that his ‘puzzles’ would ‘keep the professors busy for centuries’ – McBride’s syntax is intended to give an immediacy to her writing which instantly grabs her audience, and has the power to evoke emotion more readily and viscerally than conventional prose. (This perhaps accounts for the particular praise given to the sex scenes in The Lesser Bohemians.)
Like Eileen the novel could sit comfortably within a number of genres – bildungsroman, romance, and perhaps also so-called ‘misery memoir’ – but it refuses to adhere neatly to any one of these. Between them these two very different novels, both by and about women, provide a refreshing and exhilarating impression that, in a cynical time where it is difficult to believe any truly new art could be produced, authors are creating refreshing and electrifying fiction.