Ottessa Moshfegh’s dark and beautiful Eileen takes place over seven tense days leading up to Christmas. The story is narrated by the eponymous character from somewhere in the future, looking back through a lens of personal growth and experience. “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…I looked like nothing special,” Eileen says of her younger self. Later she says, “And I really didn’t like books about flowers or home economics. I like books about awful things—murder, illness, death.” Eileen the narrator is at once unreliable and reassuring in her honesty. Eileen the novel is a literary thriller grappling with ideas of freedom: breaking out of a metaphorical prison that’s more than geographical, a prison constructed of elements that are situational, societal, gender-driven, and self-imposed.
Eileen is bored. It’s 1964 and she’s 24 years old, working at a prison for boys and living in a “brutal cold town” in New England she calls X-Ville. Her mother is dead, and she plays caretaker for her father, an ex-cop and current drunk who’s paranoid and prone to alcoholic hallucinations. Eileen is “dark. Moony.” She has an older sister who’s in every way her opposite; “blonde, pouty and light-hearted,” she rarely visits and never helps with their father. In her free time, Eileen stalks Randy, one of the corrections officers at the prison. And she longs to rid herself of X-Ville and all its residents.
“In a week I would run away from home and never go back,” Eileen says at the end of the first chapter. This is a wonderful device of suspense that Moshfegh employs in that the reader is aware of the outcome, but still longs to know how we’re going to get there and why, recalling Alfred Hitchcock’s famous declaration that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
Still, it’s a slow build that finally brings us to the trouble of the novel. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could prove dangerous, even boring. But Moshfegh not only skillfully reveals important details and insights of Eileen, she also keeps the reader engaged through her use of language. Each sentence is perfectly weighted: “The terrain of my face was heavy with soft, rumbling acne scars blurring whatever delight or madness lay beneath that cold and deadly New England exterior.”
The language is never as heightened as it is when Eileen discusses sex. In one scene she spies on a young couple kissing in an alley: “I caught sight of them the moment the girl’s tongue slid into the boy’s mouth. I was so impressed. The soft pink color of the girl’s tongue, the way the clean winter light reflected on its sleek surface, and the contrast in its color and texture to the pure, aquiline face, so beautiful.” Eileen has complicated, mixed feelings about sex and sexual arousal, and they play an integral part in the trouble she eventually finds herself.
When the trouble comes it arrives in the form of Rebecca, the new counselor at the prison. She’s a “tall redheaded woman…beautiful and looked vaguely familiar in the way that all beautiful people look familiar.” When Eileen sees her, she’s instantly smitten, all but forgetting about Randy, who’s face “now seemed common, his lips childishly plump, almost feminine, his hair silly and pretentious.” Rebecca is a familiar trope, a kind of femme fatale meant to bring destruction or a reckoning to the characters involved—usually men. What does it say that Rebecca makes Eileen a complicit actor in a crime perpetrated not against a man, but another woman? In a way, it allows Eileen to finally assume a position of authority, gun in hand, lording over someone who she finds in a weaker state than herself.
Eileen the character allows Moshfegh to examine a woman’s body, her yearnings, her instincts, coming to understand her place in the world (and not just as a woman)—using the past to poke about in the present and show how the two, really, aren’t that different. Instead of fulfilling her role as femme fatale and destroying Eileen, Rebecca sets her free. In the end, Rebecca is nothing more than a flat character that allows Eileen to finally grow into herself—or a version of the self she will later become. The tension in the novel comes from Eileen finding within her a certain strength she doesn’t want to lose, finding her voice and realizing that it’s worth being heard. “I could say more about her,” Eileen says referring to Rebecca. “But this is my story after all, not hers.”
Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen will be available on August 18 from Penguin Press; to purchase it, click here.