Thursday, August 18, 2016

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Penguin, 2015
260 pp


"It was easy to hide behind the dull face I wore ...I thought I had everybody fooled." 

So what's up with this year's Booker Prize longlist?  Both Eileen and Menmuir's The Many (the two I've read so far) are really dark reads  peering into damaged psyches. I like this sort of thing, but had I known that my random choice of these two books one after the other would make for such disturbing reading, I probably would have read something lighter in between the two. Dark fiction appeals to me, but this pair of books together left me a bit gutted.

In John Banville's blurb from Penguin's website he notes that
"If Jim Thompson had married Patricia Highsmith – imagine that household – they might have conspired together to dream up something like Eileen."  
Thompson I'm not feeling so much, but there is something akin to Highsmith in here in the sense that Moshfegh has written a book that left me wanting to take short breaks from roaming around in her repulsive main character's head. This novel takes on a week in the life of Eileen Dunlop as recalled by an older self some fifty years later, looking back to her last days as "angry little Eileen" leading up to the moment when she makes an escape from strange "life of a nobody, a waif, invisible."  Keeping in mind that in this novel appearances can be somewhat deceiving and that there's much more going on than meets the eye, whether or not we should be cheering her on is a judgment call that can't really be made until the final page has been turned.

While I'm not going to go into plot so as not to spoil things, it's beyond appropriate that Eileen works in a "private juvenile facility for teenage boys," "for all intents and purposes -- a prison for children,"  since one of the main ideas in this book seems to be how people come to find themselves in his or her own form of imprisonment.  Eileen is stuck in her house taking care of her widowed dad, a stubborn ex-cop who is now drunk most of the time which Eileen prefers since she can "just hand him a bottle and leave the room" when he needs to be distracted or soothed.  When he asks her to buy him more booze, instead of arguing, she's glad to get out of the house to kill time.  She's stuck in a body she despises to the point of repulsion and self-loathing, she's stuck in the past, wearing her deceased mother's clothes. She's stuck in her "brutal cold town," just counting the days until she can make her escape, viewing life as "one long sentence of waiting out the clock."  But, as we learn, Eileen isn't the only one who is stuck or imprisoned.

 And Eileen has secrets that she shares with no one except us.  On the other hand, she's not the only one  -- most of the main characters in this novel have secrets that will slowly come tumbling out and trust me, they're pretty horrific. Thinking of the secrets people keep here reminds me of the author's focus on masks. Eileen wears her "death mask" at work, since she is "terribly sensitive and determined never to show it." She finds that in order to get through her work day, she has had to "steel herself from the reality of the place..." since she was surrounded by "misery and shame."  Her inspiration --  a book she'd discovered at a library that "showed casts of faces" of several notable historical figures.  Practicing regularly and "diligently" at a mirror, she worked toward achieving, as she notes, "an aura of benign resilience, such as I saw in those dead men's faces."  Again, though, she's not the only one, and it seems to me that the author spends a lot of time getting to the root of what's behind the masks these people wear.  There's much more of course, but it is definitely a book that needs to be experienced rather than simply talked about.

While the dustjacket blurb says that there's a "Hitchcockian twist" in this novel, I didn't feel that one either.  It's true that this "twist" is important to the overall story, but I kind of saw it coming so it wasn't as much of a "Hitchcockian" moment as I was led to believe by the blurb.  I don't really think that plot is really the main focus here; it's much more a book about people and damage and how they end up being the way they are.  Eileen turned out for me to be much less about reading a novel and became more of a foray into a seriously disturbed mind or two or three, and I liked it.  Creepy, yes. Repulsive and uncomfortable, at times.  Difficult subject matter, definitely. But how people end up where they are in their lives and why they do what they do absolutely fascinates me and it's all here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Many, by Wyl Menmuir

Salt Publishing, 2016
141 pp


The Many is an example of why I am a champion of novels from smaller, independent publishers. I had noted this title while looking at Salt's webpage some time back, thinking it looked intriguing, and then it shows up on this year's Booker Prize longlist. Not that I plan to read every novel on that list, but this one had initially caught my eye because it seemed like the kind of dark, intense read that would appeal.  And as it turns out, my hunch was right.  Even though this novel has its naysayers, I liked it.

The truth is though, that it took me two readings before I felt like I was getting somewhere with this novel. To be really honest, while the story compelled me to keep turning pages the first time,  it wasn't until the ending when I did a double take and realized a) that all is not as it seems on the surface here and b) I absolutely needed to read it again.  The result was an even sadder and more disturbing story the second time through, and it was well worth the time I put into it, one that's still haunting me right now while I'm thinking about it. Very few books can really do that to me, and this is one of them.

Just a little re plot, but not much.  An old, abandoned house overlooks the sea, a house that has stood empty for years.  Now an "incomer" by the name of Timothy Bucchanan has come to occupy it, thinking to fix it up as a place for himself and his wife Lauren (who is not there with him at the time and who will come when the house is ready), but his arrival is not a particularly welcome one among the others who live in this small, isolated coastal village.  Most profoundly affected by Timothy's arrival is Ethan, who is the first to notice chimney smoke rising from the house.  It seems that the place formerly belonged to Perran, who died many years ago; the house has since remained just the way it was when Perran died, sort of frozen in time.  Ethan and the men in the village are fishermen, but their way of life has been seriously curtailed, with fishing limited to an area delineated by the coastline and a "line of stationary container ships," due to "a profusion of biological agents and contaminants" poisoning the waters. The damage to the environment yields damaged fish, and yet there's always someone there to pay for and to take away the catch.  As Timothy works to try to put the house into some sort of order, questions arise regarding the former occupant, about whom everyone seems reluctant to speak. The question is why, of course, and trying to uncover answers is part and parcel of this novel.

In trying to deal with the house (which is still known locally as "Perran's house"), Timothy has times when it seems he may have taken on a bigger job than he can actually handle.  On his first morning in the house, he "wanders from room to room," discovering "huge shadows of stains on the walls and ceilings." His first thought as he looks around for fuel for the fireplace  is that the "house is a mistake," and then while looking out the window, he
"draws his fingers the length of the window frame and feels flecks of paint peel off beneath his fingertips. There is a thin line or crack, barely perceptible, that runs up through the window and he adds it to his mental list of things he needs to fix." 
The second time through, taking things much slower this time, it was here that my thinking skills  started kicking in, drawing me toward the ideas of deterioration and damage that seem to be common threads in this book.  Of course, what I read into it may not be at all what the author intended, but well, considering how very enigmatic this book is, my interpretation is probably just one among many.

 The Many is definitely a cryptic novel which can be extremely frustrating, and given its size,  it probably shouldn't take two readings for most people.  In my case, the second read helped a lot, since there is not much that is said here by way of explanation, and there is much that a reader has to pick up through an examination of dreams and flashbacks and through drawing parallels.  I often felt like the characters in this book -- "hemmed in", since there's a tense, claustrophobic feel to this story.  It also had the effect of keeping me knocked off kilter the entire time.  In spite of the fact that it was so enigmatic (and really, some of it is just plain strange at times), I found it a dark, sad and eerie book that I won't be forgetting any time soon. That's a good thing.

Recommended for very patient readers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz

Melville House Publishers, 2016
originally published 2013, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
217 pp


Frankly, this is one hell of a good book.

I can just picture someone somewhere reading the back-cover blurb of this book where it says "The Queue is a chilling debut that evokes Orwellian dystopia, Kafkaesque surrealism,..." and wondering why he/she should read it if it's done before.  Well, it's certainly true that there are a lot of books that focus on people faced with the absurdities of a totalitarian government, but in this book, what strikes me is how optimistic some people are in believing  that if they just wait long enough, the state will take care of their problems.  Never mind that the Gate, the bureaucracy that is the unseen "absolute authority" in this unnamed country,  is never actually open to the citizens -- although rumors abound as to when it might open, people have been waiting long enough for help that a huge queue has formed and continues to increase in size while nobody ever seems to move.  The Gate continues to issue laws dictating that people will need permission from the state for an ever-growing number of activities, some as absurd as can be, and as these laws and proclamations become ever more intrusive and ever more numerous, more people continue to find a place in the queue and to wait with some measure of hope for what they need. And it's in the queue, really, where life goes on -- there are rules to be followed, commerce taking place, religious activities and activism, protests going on and  information being disseminated -- so that at some point, the queue becomes a society in its own right.

The major thread running through this story gives us a peek at how this authoritarian system works.  Tarek is a doctor who desperately wants to remove a bullet from a young man named Yehya Gad el-Rab.  Yehya, who wasn't protesting at the time, had been shot during the "Disgraceful Events," a four-day long "street battle" put down by the Quell Force, a unit specifically created to deter riots of this sort, and he now has a bullet lodged in his pelvis.   Hampering Tarek's efforts is a recent proclamation from the Gate that says that it is a "criminal act" to extract a bullet "except when performed under official authorization issued by the Gate of the Northern Building." After all,
"bullets and projectiles may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization." 
So Tarek has to wait until Yehya receives that "special authorization" from the Gate. As the story progresses, the proclamations issued by the Gate in this case become increasingly absurd, for example, with the forbidding of x-rays, and most especially the denial that the government ever fired on the crowd.  New hurdles continue to crop up -- Tarek discovers that Yehya's medical records have been tampered with, and that the x-rays have disappeared altogether. Things take a more sinister, dark and downright frightening turn when in her desperate attempt to help save his life, Yehya's girlfriend decides to bypass the system. In the meantime, Tarek continues to agonize over what he should have done and didn't out of his fear of repercussions from the Gate.  And all the while, history is being rewritten or whitewashed, forcing many people to try to rationalize what they know versus what the Gate is telling them.

There are a number of other stories here in this novel,  and it hits on so many things thematically, but I'll leave those for others to discover.  And as I said, while there are certainly any number of books out there that explore this sort of thing, this one is certainly different than most others I've read.  Looking at what other people have to say, The Queue is garnering some excellent reader reviews, although one reader called it "decidedly dull," with an ending that isn't "conclusive."   I will say that this book is not an easy read in the sense that answers/explanations aren't handed to you on a plate, and that it does take a fair amount of patience to read, for which in my opinion, you'll be rewarded. At the same time, as I read it, images were just exploding in my head, which is a good thing and to me the sign of a well-written novel.  For me, it was a serious page turner, a book I didn't want to put down for any reason.

real reviews of this novel:
from NPR
Literature After the Arab Spring