Eileen is an atmospheric thriller with a seductively ugly narrative voice.
Length: 260 pages
Author: Ottessa Moshfegh
Publication date: 2016-08
Collisions of contradictions give Eileen, the debut novel from Ottessa Moshfegh, a unique allure. It’s hilariously dark, enlightened yet caustic take on gender, but most of all, Eileen, both the book and the character, are seductively ugly, confiding details of that ugliness in such a cunning yet nonchalant fashion that the reader can never look away.
Taking place over the week of Christmas, 1964, Eileen immediately shatters any sentimentalism about Christmas, that era, or anything really. Eileen Dunlop is 24-years-old and splits her time between cleaning up the messes of her severely alcoholic father and the secretarial work she hates at a boys prison in her coastal New England hometown, referred to as X-ville. Living in the dirtiest house on the block, wearing her dead mother’s ill-fitting clothes, Eileen’s life is outwardly shabby but more or less normal. Inwardly, however, Eileen is a seething cauldron of neuroses and resentments.
In caustic prose, she confesses to a litany of forbidden thoughts and behaviors; caring more for her dog’s death than her mother’s, shoplifting, stalking, poor hygiene, sexual feelings towards teenage inmates, and rituals of self-mortification like her weekly laxative-aided cycle of bloating and purging that leaves her lying exhausted on her basement floor. Her feelings towards others vacillate between a deep need for affection and a Caulfield-like distaste for phonies and inability to empathize with others. Yet for all this, at the story’s onset she's incapable of breaking out of the roles others expect of her; she continues to be a doormat for people she loathes, which only compounds her internal self-loathing.
Eileen’s dreams of escape are given a shot in the arm by the arrival of Rebecca St. John, who joins the prison staff as a therapist. Beautiful, Harvard-educated, wealthy, able to be an idealist with no fear of consequences, Rebecca is like no one Eileen has ever met and instantly becomes an object of fixation. When Rebecca shows interest in Eileen, for her it’s like being bathed in a heavenly glow. However, the new friendship quickly becomes something much darker as Rebecca pulls Eileen into a terrible crime that propels Eileen out of X-ville and her old life forever.
The novel’s greatest asset is its mesmerizing first-person narration -- in turns mordant, funny, bleak, knowing, bitter -- which comes not from the Eileen as seen in the novel, but from the vantage point of old age. From the first page, the book is dripping with tension because of the enormous gulf between the two versions of the same woman. The elder Eileen is worldly, more serene, and yet still contemptuous of most everything around her, especially her young self. For the naïve, alienated young woman to change so dramatically, while still feeling such anger, the reader senses Eileen must be capable of anything.
This keenly felt perspective is not only a joy in the confines of this story, but also in relation to other books of its kind. Eileen is very explicitly trying to give voice to the kind of person/character who is usually ignored in the masculine dominated field of hardboiled thrillers. The story opens with Eileen describing herself as the kind of “girl you’d expect to see on a city bus… I looked like nothing special.” Eileen is used to being overlooked and, though resentful about it, uses it as a power, taking pride in the “death mask” she fixes on her face to pass unnoticed.
Until the events of the story, Eileen exerts little to no agency in her life, held in callous servitude by her alcoholic father and assisting in the incarceration of boys whom she feels of a type with. Compared to the boys in prison, she feels her situation is “no worse or better” and fantasizes that the boys can see “right through my death mask to my sad and fiery soul, though I doubt they saw me at all.”
Yet for all the cruelty inflicted on her, Eileen at 24 is cruel herself, and incapable of compassion for others: “Why should my heart ache for anyone but myself? If anyone was trapped and suffering and abused, it was me. I was the only one whose pain was real. Mine.” This failure of empathy leads to the stinging irony of the novel, that Eileen’s liberation only comes once she and Rebecca exact punishment on another woman whose situation -- being guilty mostly of being a loyal spouse to a criminal --- is not all that different from her own.
While the depth, distinction, and duality of Eileen’s subjectivity is Moshfegh’s greatest achievement, Eileen’s curt assessments do prevent the reader from an unbiased understanding of the other characters. But that’s a flaw that comes with the territory. Overall, Eileen is a unique, atmospheric thriller with a setting and character from far outside the norms of genre fiction. Eileen’s voice is unforgettable, a voice you will hear whispering in your ear long after you finish.