The protagonist of your novel Eileen (2015) is one of the strangest yet most endearing literary misfits who have crossed my reading paths in recent years.
The story is told in first-person narration, by the eponymous narrator, Eileen Dunlop, who is telling us, from the point of view of 50 years in the future, of one decisive week in her life. Looking back on the week before Christmas 1964, Eileen throws a sharp and unsparing light upon her younger self. “I was not myself back then. I was someone else.”
Back then, in 1964, the 24-year-old Eileen was living in a small Massachusetts town called X-ville. Before having to come back home to take care of her ailing mother, she had gone to college for a year and a half. Since her mother’s death, however, she works as a secretary at Moorehead, a correctional facility for delinquent boys. Eileen has dropped her studies and is living in a filthy, decrepit house with her abusive, deranged and alcoholic father, a retired policeman who has become increasingly paranoid.
Her relationship with her father could not be worse: whenever he sees her, he insults her. Eileen, on her part, limits her housekeeping activities to buying his daily bottle of gin – only by keeping her father permanently drunk, she can save some space for herself. Moreover, while acting in the surface as a quiet and dutiful daughter, in reality Eileen feeds her secret desire to murder her father, and rejoices in imagining the infinite ways she could do so. “Here was the crux of my dilemma. I felt like killing my father, but I didn’t want him to die.”
While at the surface Eileen seems to be just a plain, gentle, ordinary girl, “minor character in this saga”, her mind is moved by rage, violence, and a knack for dark fantasies. “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.” In fact, the only interesting things in her life happen inside her head, while from the outside she deploys a flat expression (her “death mask”, as she calls it) to keep people at bay: she fantasizes about killing her father, as well as about being impaled by the icicle which hangs above her front door, “cracking and darting through my breasts, splicing through the thick gristle of my shoulder like bullets or cleaving my brain into pieces”; she lusts for Randy, one of the guys who worked at Moorehead, and stalks him around; she mutely loathes her female co-workers; and finally, she dreams of leaving her town and going to New York.
Eileen’s life is torn between these apparently irreconcilable, but in fact inevitably complementary halves: harsh reality and dark fantasy. And so is the novel, torn between a psychological thriller and a character study, between noir and coming-of-age. As a thriller, it is the story of how Eileen leaves her father and X-ville behind; as a character study, it is the (far more accomplished, I must say) story of why she did it in the end. The book has only one major weakness: these two halves do not fit naturally, but forcefully. The aspect concerning the thriller itself seems to have been brought in haste, at the final chapters, while more than half of the book is vested solely in the description of the protagonist. There is an imbalance between the minute character study, and the rushed thriller plotline.
From the begining, we know that there will be some sort of nasty event, maybe a crime; from the first chapter, we know that Eileen will run away. “In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.” And, while the narrator is repeatedly reminding us that something will happen; while the novel presents some classics noir elements (plot twists, the arrival of a mysterious, glamorous femme fatale, in the person of Rebecca, a new colleague at Moorehead); what really keeps the plot going is the unrelenting unravelling of Eileen’s twisted psychology.
Nothing really happens. However, the more she discloses about her perverted, most charmingly disturbing mind, the more we want to know. The book is a catalogue of Eileen’s obsessions and her body’s imperfections: “I felt my mouth was horselike and ugly, so I barely smiled. When I did smile, I worked hard to keep my top lip from riding up, something that required great restraint, self-awareness, and self-control. The time I spent disciplining that lip, you would not believe. I truly felt that the inside of my mouth was a private area, caverns and folds of wet parting flesh, that letting anyone see into it was just as bad as spreading my legs.”
Eileen feels a peculiar attraction to “awful things — murder, illness, death”. In order to escape her boring life, she wraps it up with a nasty, creepy veil. She keeps a dead mouse in the glove box of her car; she simultaneously disgusts over and revels in her own bodily functions (her stink, her feces, her vomit, her sexual desire); she shoplifts chocolate and takes regular dosis of laxative and alcohol; she is desperately lonely, inward-looking and shy, but her mind is merciless; she hides her body beneath her dead mother’s unwashed clothes (“Having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself. This was the kind of girl I was.”); she doesn’t shower regularly, and revels in her own stench; she hates everyone and is angry all the time (“I hated my face with a passion”); she is a virgin with a dirty mind. “I’d always believed that my first time would be by force. Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me.” She is mystified by spying on one of the detained teenagers, while he is masturbating in his cell: “His body curled up like a small animal. In my effort to understand the movements of his hand, I pressed my face to the window. My tongue, cold from the milk, met the surface of the glass.” And she may not be a very reliable narrator either.
Rebecca’s function, in the novel, as a catalyst for the exposure of Eileen’s savagery, as well as the dark bond between the two girls reminded me of two books I have read recently: The Girls, by Emma Cline (2016); and, more closely, Harriet Said…, by Beryl Bainbridge (written in 1958 and published in 1972). As it happens in Harriet Said… between the narrator and Harriet, and in The Girls between Evie and Suzanne, Eileen also wants to please Rebecca, not only as a means of being her friend, but more closely as a way of dominating her, of becoming her. As it also happens in Harriet Said…, in Eileen the perversity of the characters reveals itself to be a byproduct of the perversity of the rationale those characters are forced to submit to. The fact that the twisted nature of those characters’ minds never erupts to the surface – and coexists quietly with their exemplary everyday lives – lends these novels an unsettling aftertaste.
You have also been repeatedly compared to Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor. While it is right that Eileen evokes Jackson’s twisted heroines, and while Eileen’s random act of violence in the end could have been part of one of O’Connor’s plots, for me your writing style lacks both the lavishness of the former and the quietly visceral brutality of the latter. Moreover, Eileen’s random violence is never paired with random acts of grace, as in O’Connor best stories. Eileen’s endless strings of self-loathing, self-mocking monologues had turned somewhat tiring by the end of the book – just as it happens when the same trick is repeated several times.
And yet, Eileen is a remarkable debut novel, whose main strenght lies in its vitality. The more unlikable your protagonist is, the more she elicits our empathy; the more dirty her fantasies, the more innocent she reveals herself to be. Eileen’s mild sociopathy can be disturbingly enchanting after all.
“It’s easy to tell the dirtiest minds—look for the cleanest fingernails.”
― Ottessa Moshfegh,
“And unless you’ve grown up in New England, you don’t know the peculiar stillness of a coastal town covered in snow at night. It is not like in other places. The light does something funny at sunset. It seems not to wane but to recede out toward the ocean. The light just gets pulled away.”
― Ottessa Moshfegh,
“A grown woman is like a coyote–she can get by on very little. Men are more like house cats. Leave them alone for too long and they’ll die of sadness”
― Ottessa Moshfegh,
“People truly engaged in life have messy houses.”
― Ottessa Moshfegh,
“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. You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip. I looked like nothing special.”
― Ottessa Moshfegh,
About the book
- Penguin Books, 2016, 260 p. Goodreads
- Vintage, 2016, 272 p. Goodreads
- First published in 2015
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize (2016)
- Winner of the 40th PEN/Hemingway Award (2016)
- Shirley Jackson Award Nominee for Novel (2015), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Fiction (2015)
- My rating: 3,5 stars
- This book was kindly sent to me via SocialBookCo for review (affiliation program). If you buy the book using this link (www.socialbookco.com/book/9780143128755/eileen?rid=179), I earn a small commission, which I use to indulge on the pleasure of… buying more books! 😉