“That is what I imagined life to be–one long sentence of waiting out the clock.”
Eileen, from author Ottessa Moshfegh is a novel that could described in many ways, yet I doubt if any single description would give a potential reader an accurate impression of this book. It’s a crime novel, a bildungsroman, a character study, a story of a dysfunctional family–all these things wrapped into a dark tale of how Eileen, a complicated, repressed young woman, locked into a pathological home life and employed in a job she dislikes, breaks free. After reading about Eileen’s miserable home life, within a few pages she tells us:
In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.
The story is told by a now elderly Eileen who relates a week in her life 50 years earlier in 1964. And here is how this extraordinary book begins right before Christmas in a “brutal cold town” Eileen masks as X-ville:
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. It’s easy for me to imagine this girl, a strange and mousy version of me, carrying an anonymous leather purse, or eating from a small package of peanuts, rolling each one between her gloved fingers, sucking in her cheeks, staring anxiously out the window.
Right away one of the book’s themes creeps in: appearances vs reality, and 24-year-old Eileen is quite aware that she’s frumpy, painfully thin, and extremely unattractive. Yet Eileen, who describes herself as “ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world” courts this look by wearing her dead mother’s far-too big clothing. She lives with her cruel alcoholic, widowed ex-cop father–a man plagued with booze-fueled paranoias, in a filthy three-storey colonial, and she sleeps on a cot up in the unfinished attic. With a poor diet, and obsessed with her body functions and their associated odours, she’s become addicted to laxatives in order to produce regular bowel movements. There are hints that Eileen may be anorexic, chewing sweets to get the flavor before spitting them out as she curls up on a mattress in the squalor of her attic room.
Within a few pages we know that sexually repressed, “always furious,” Eileen toys with fantasies of death and suicide. She imagines stepping out of her house and one of the large icicles “plummeting through the hollow” of her collarbone or even entering “the vacuous center” of her body “like a glass dagger.” But there are other fantasies too–fantasies of escaping her horrible, suffocating home life in the small Massachusetts town. Perhaps if you saw frumpily dressed Eileen, you’d think, as she suggests, that she’s a “shy and gentle soul for afar,” but that impression would be wrong. Eileen is a hard drinker and a chronic shoplifter. Her father’s constant cruel barbs bounce off her armour and fail to penetrate. She likes books about “awful things–murder, illness, death,” and she keeps a dead mouse in the glove box of the old Dodge Cornet she drives.
There’s also what Eileen calls the “death mask,” the expression she wears to hide how she really feels, and it’s also what she recognizes in other people–especially the young offenders at the juvenile correctional facility for boys where she is employed as a secretary of sorts. The prison is run with a religious bent, so the boys, many of whom look like sad angels, are forced to read the bible and are punished for masturbating by being thrown in “the cave.” Just as Eileen moves through the motions at home, she goes through the motions at work, noting the broken-hearted mothers who visit, and the damaged boys, the youngest is 9, who shuffle through the system. Some of the young prisoners are guilty of horrendous crimes against family members, yet Eileen acknowledging, in retrospect, that she was too self-focused for empathy, mostly likes the inmates. In spite of her inexperience, she understands that many of the boys wear the same “death mask” as she does; that they too have perfected the art of hiding their thoughts, their feelings, their real selves. One prisoner in particular, Leonard Polk, a boy who murdered his cop father, catches Eileen’s attention:
There was a strange bounce in his step. His face was bright and relaxed, and serene in a way that no other boy’s face had ever seemed, a loose reservedness which I found myself admiring. He looked pleased, impenetrable, and cold as though nothing could ever disturb him, and yet still as innocent as the silent creature I’d seen earlier touching himself absentmindedly on his cot in the cave. I searched for something in his face, anything his mask of contentment might betray, but there was nothing. He was a genius in that sense–a master. His was the best mask I’d ever seen.
Eileen’s main interest at work is a former inmate, the brawny guard, Randy, and while Randy seems oblivious to this mousy girl, she sneaks peeks at his crotch, tries to catch a whiff of his sweat, and spends nights and weekends stalking him, parked outside of his apartment.
In spite of Eileen’s measured, calm voice, this tale is tension packed. We know that something bad happens; we’re just waiting for that catalyst, “her destiny” to appear. …
What’s so beautiful about Eileen’s story–a story about escape, crime and survival are the moments when she injects comments into the narrative as she looks back on her old life, says goodbye to characters in the story she never saw again, and mulls over the person she used to be.
Funny the things one remembers. I spent most Sundays holed up at home or driving to and from Randy’s house while my father was out communing with god or whatever he thought he was doing at church.
What happened in X-ville was just the beginning of Eileen’s journey and that experience was often bitter:
So you seem what came after this story ends was not a direct line to paradise, but I believe I got on the right road, with all the appropriate trips and kinks
Eileen seems to be a book that divides opinion. Many reviews on goodreads state that readers never liked or felt close to Eileen. While for me, this was never the point, I have to say that I felt the opposite. Ottessa Moshfegh’s skillfully woven narrative takes us into Eileen’s intriguing, dark, complex mind, and Eileen doesn’t spare or excuse herself while categorically refusing victim status. As a character, shaped by her environment, she makes sense, and in a ‘what if’ sort of way, it’s easy to predict what Eileen would have become if she’s stayed trapped in X-ville.
You know you really love a book when you create reading opportunities. I’m still thinking about this book which will end up on my best-of-year list, so it’s highly recommended if you like an extremely dark read full of twisted and unpleasant characters. Eileen has been compared, justifiably, to Alfred Hitchcock, and I’ll go one further and say that Eileen should appeal to fans of Patricia Highsmith. In Eileen, crime isn’t seen as a prelude to punishment, or a tool in the battle between good and evil; it’s seen as a liberating event. And that’s wonderfully, remarkably twisted.
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