‘Will you please stop it! I have never found the action of deviates to be in the least bit amusing.’ Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) in John Water’s ‘Desperate Living’. (1974)
‘Eileen’ has been smuggled into the world of ‘literature’, disguised as some sort of ‘noir’ style crime drama, swathed in the image of a fog-bound car creeping its way to no-good and, for good measure, blurb which hints of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian classic, ‘Carol’.
‘…(Eileen) fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a handsome prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the beautiful, charismatic Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counsellor in the prison, Eileen is enchanted and unable to resist what appears to be a miraculously budding friendship…
What lurks inside, however, is something else entirely. If you want a taut crime escapade, then you’ll need to look elsewhere…but if you want a gripping character study of a most vulgar and full-blooded woman, then this is the book for you. As for the Highsmith hints, if it does channel her work (and I have admit that I haven’t read anything by Highsmith so I wouldn’t know) then it does so via one of my favourite directors of all time: John Waters.
Christened the ‘Pope of Trash’ by William S Burroughs, John Waters began making films in the late 1960s, casting his circle of Baltimore friends in films whose raison d’etre was to shock and horrify middle-class America. Water’s characters were those who sulked and snarled through school, those who you would cross the street to avoid and those who your parents warned you against. Take, for example, Connie Marble (Mink Stole) in ‘Pink Flamingos’. Connie is determined to snatch the title of ‘Filthiest Person Alive’ from her rival, Divine, and will do anything to get it:
‘I guess there’s just two kinds of people, Miss Sandstone: my kind of people and assholes. It’s rather obvious which category you fit into. Have a nice day.’
Or what about Dawn Davenport (Divine) in my favourite Waters’ film, ‘Female Trouble’. A juvenile delinquent, Dawn hates school – preferring to hang out with her hairhopper friends Chicklet and Conchetta. One Christmas, when she doesn’t get the cha-cha heels she demands, Dawn throws her mother under the Christmas tree and armed with only a baby-doll nightie and a handbag, leaves the Davenport home for a life of go-go dancing, cat-burglary and bringing up a brat of a daughter…
‘I’ve done everything a mother can do. I’ve locked her in her room, I’ve beaten her with the car ariel. Nothing changes her. It’s hard being a loving mother!’
When a hair salon’s owners recognise Dawn as the most hideous of beauties, fame goes to Dawn’s head and to obtain the ultimate notoriety she shoots an audience dead and ends up in the electric chair.
In an ideal world, ‘Eileen: The Movie’ would star the Waters perennial Mink Stole as Eileen and Divine as the incandescent Rebecca. Like both Connie and Dawn, Eileen really doesn’t give a rat’s ass what you or anyone else thinks, carrying herself with the hard faced confidence which many of us could only marvel at. Not for Eileen any simpering modesty or half hearted opinions.
‘My suspicions about the office ladies weren’t necessarily disparaging…I imagined them going home at night to their disgusting husbands, so bitter, so lonely. On the other hand, to think of them with their blouses unbuttoned, hands on each other’s brassieres, legs spread, made me want to vomit.’
‘Eileen’ is pitch perfect from start to finish. Eileen, the character, seeps through every page: her smell, her attitude, her thoughts, her fears, her hates and her loves. It is a great character study, possibly ranking alongside Ignatius J Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ as one of the great anti-heros of literature, pushing the reader to look at everyday life in a different way…
‘I had to dig my hand down the front of my skirt, under the girdle, inside the underwear, and when the itch had been relieved I pulled my fingers out and smelled them. It’s a natural curiosity, to smell one’s fingers….
…before laying you out with the blackest of humour and the cruellest of wit.
‘…Later, when the day was done, these were the fingers I extended, still unwashed, to Dr. Frye, when I wished him a happy retirement on his way out the door.’
Nothing is off limits to Eileen. She’ll tell you about her sexual fantasies and all the things which, in the Waters’ mold, strike at the heart of the straight and dull. There are moments when Eileen crosses the line of what timid readers may find offensive or disturbing, touching on places which Waters dared go all those years ago and now, with the world turning into an ever more conservative place, appear just as transgressive and maybe even more necessary.
‘The figure of Mary had a wide grin on its face. When I approached it and stood on the cleared sidewalk, I saw that the mouth had been defaced. Someone had painted over it with what looked like bright red lipstick. Black marked criss-crossed with the lips turned her smile into a jack-o-lantern smirk. It made me laugh.’
‘Eileen’ is a camp masterpiece, a novel which, to quote Susan Sontag, ‘turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgement…what it does is to offer art (and life) a different – a supplementary – set of standards.’ and, as accurately, offers ‘the glorification of character…the unity, the force of the person.’ And, to miss-quote Ms. Sontag, ‘In every move…Eileen makes, she’s being Eileen.’ It isn’t perfect camp, because perfect camp is innocent, doesn’t realise it is being camp and it is quite clear that Moshfegh knows exactly what she is doing. This intent is shared by the author of this year’s other major camp novel, ‘A Little Life’, which Hanya Yanagihara wrote with the desire to have ‘everything turned up a little too high’. Of the two, ‘Eileen’ is infinitely preferable, coming as it does without the stifling dose of worthiness which infects Yanagihara’s confection.
Yet, this is a strangely touching novel too: Eileen’s isolation, her plaintive expression of loneliness and lack of self pity display to great effect a crushed soul behind the wisecracks.
Having been shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, it will be interesting to see how ‘Eileen’ fairs. I loved it, but could a ‘camp’ novel really win such a prize? I doubt it – despite the fine writing I don’t think the judges would have the bravery of rewarding such a camp creation. Whatever happens, this will always be a GREAT novel.
As the novel ends we learn that after she escaped from her small-town hell Eileen trolled to New York and met her first husband in the back row of a porn cinema…clearly we need another volume…
* Peggy Gravel, the original woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, escapes suburbia for the grimy misery of Mortville, a town of losers and misfits ruled over by the cruel Queen Carlotta. By the end of the film Peggy, unable to rid herself of her suburban outlook, becomes a lackey of the cruel Queen and during the revolution instigated by our ‘muff diving’ heroines finds her ass (literally) blown away. Peggy would despise Eileen.