Ottessa Moshfegh’s novels might not easily appeal to all readers—especially those who usually go for a light-hearted, gleeful story. Articles on her writing are commonly titled “The art of loathing: is Eileen the least likeable protagonist in fiction?” (New Statesman) or “The Pleasures of Hating in ‘My Year of Rest and Relaxation’ On Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest ‘unlikeable’ character” (Chicago Review of Books). Unlikeability, thus, seems to be the main source of criticism when it comes to Moshfegh’s women characters—they are not only repulsive, mean and cruel, but also devoid of any moral constraint, to the point where they unashamedly destabilize the reader’s assumption of what is permissible in terms of writing a female character.
Eileen, published in 2016, unquestionably fits the category of the so-called ‘unlikeable’ female protagonists, as commonly appreciated by the larger reading public. The novel starts matter-of-factly, with the protagonist professing: “I looked like a girl you’d 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.” So far so good. We’ve all heard these things before. Boringly predictable. But then she goes on saying: “I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s (…) And I didn’t really read books about flowers or home economics. I liked books about awful things – murder, illness, death.” It is at this point that I become alert, my mind eager to learn more about this openly faulted character, somebody who dares to breach the norm of social acceptability. And I read on.
At 24-years-old, Eileen lives in Massachusetts with her alcoholic father whom she openly loathes—“Imagining his parents beating him as a child is the only path to forgiveness that I found so far. It isn’t perfect, but it does the trick.”—but impassively tolerates. She works at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys—or, alternatively put, a prison for children—as “a kind of secretary,” where she directs all her energy towards being as unsociable as possible and silently detesting every single one of her colleagues.
Although the novel is largely marketed as a psychological thriller, I much rather find it an exquisite character study. So much of Eileen is grounded in Eileen’s experiences. She does things like touching herself and then smelling her fingers—the same fingers she later extends, still unwashed, to shake her co-worker’s hands; pours her pee out of the attic window into the snow-filled gutter, likes to languish in her own filth as long as she can tolerate it and wears lipstick to hide the natural shade of her lips, which are the same colour as her nipples.
I mean, at this point you’re probably as disgusted as a Victorian moralist madame would professedly be. But why should we be outraged? As Rebecca Liu puts it in “The Making of a Millennial Woman,” “[w]e are now supposedly in the era of the ‘unlikeable woman’, which means that we celebrate that women too can be dirty, repulsive, mean, cruel, and flawed.” There was a whole debate on the subject of ‘unlikeability’ in fiction in 2013, at the end of which we thought we won the battle and added a new aesthetical category to the already existing ones deeming beauty and the sublime as the artistic absolute. Needless to say, that is not the case.
I found reviews on Amazon claiming things such as “while I'm fine with unsympathetic protagonists, I found Moshfegh's obsession with squalor and bad hygiene so gut wrenching that I put down the novel repeatedly.” I am sorry to disappoint sir, but the first part of your sentence nonsensically disapproves the second. What exactly does "unsympathetic" mean for you? Women who coyly pose as feminists for the first one hundred pages, but then you gently start to forgive them as they submissively accept their fate and concoct five children by the end of the book?
Another review read “If you like 240 pages of exposition, and description of an unlikeable main character (…) this is the book for you. We never see [Eileen] develop into this self-loving character…” And she painfully goes on. Wow, self-loving character. Is that the new standard according to which quality fiction should be measured? The self-care industry will be exhilarated.
In many ways, I think we’re dealing with a cultural malaise—which has probably been going on since the dawn of humanity (I don’t know, but I am generalizing for emphatic purposes)—which hails this code of conduct that dictates the proper way to be. Although the consequences of this idea are hugely apparent in our society—especially in the case of women—in this essay I am reductively only concerned with fiction.
I never cared for ‘sympathetic’ characters. If we were to measure fiction by how sympathetic its characters are, there would be no Lolita, The Collector or anything written by Violette Leduc. For fuck’s sake, even Hamlet is annoying and self-absorbed beyond repair. Or Joyce’s Stephan Dedalus and his relentless stream-of-consciousness thinking that goes on for pages and pages. Or Proust who takes twenty pages to describe his room whilst eating madeleines in bed served on a silver tray by his maid. And among these examples, which do you think is the one most overlooked and forgotten by readers? Of course it’s the woman—who has ever even heard about Violette Leduc? The few articles about her have titles such as “Violette Leduc: the great French feminist writer we need to remember" (my emphasis). But who does remember her? She’s as inexistent today as she was during her lifetime, and as she herself proclaimed she would be.
In an article titled “Not Here to Make Friends,” Roxane Gay points out: