Tuesday, February 02, 2016

What we're reading: Dark humor

Eileen, by Otessa Moshfegh, tells the story of a week in the life of 24-year old Eileen Dunlop, a secretary at a boys' juvenile detention facility outside Boston in the 1960s. Eileen lives at home with her alcoholic father, a retired policeman, who she takes care of after her mother dies. She has been planning her escape from home for months, but can’t quite seem to muster the energy to put her plan into motion. Then a beautiful new teacher appears at the prison and shines her light on Eileen, only to entangle her in an outrageous crime. 

Although Eileen becomes involved in a crime, the book is actually more of a character study than a crime drama. Eileen is a sad-sack, but an incredibly funny one. She is attracted to the absurd and grotesque in life, at one point proclaiming she has memorized where every smooshed bug and smeared booger are in every library book she has checked out. Rather than get the exhaust fixed in her car, she plots her trips around how far she can get before she passes out from carbon monoxide poisoning. She keeps all of her drunk father’s shoes locked in the trunk of her car so he can’t leave the house and cause trouble, only throwing a pair up onto the porch on Sunday mornings so he can attend church. He does nothing but insult her, but she seems to revel in his attention.

For most people in these circumstances, leaving would seem like a no-brainer, but for most of the book Eileen seems unwilling to leave, simply out of spite for everyone who questions the way she lives. At once hateful and endearing, she is a complex character who is so perverse that you can’t help laugh. Some might find it depressing, but if you have a dark sense of humor, this is quite an enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Laura M., reference librarian

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