Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

I just finished Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh’s first published novel, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2016. Set during the week leading up to Christmas in 1964, the story’s narrator is Eileen Dunlop, an embittered and disturbed woman living in a small Massachusetts town. Her life is not an ideal one, dividing her time working as a secretary in a juvenile prison and caring for her mean-spirited, alcoholic father. Eileen spends most of her time secretly stalking one of the prison guards and fantasizing about leaving her old life forever. Days follow the same monotonous pattern, until she meets a woman named Rebecca. Eileen immediately becomes obsessed with her new friend, as she finds Rebecca’s outspoken manner to be utterly fascinating. The story follows Eileen’s life over the course of a week, leading to a shocking event on Christmas Eve that changes her life forever.

Eileen (2015) by Ottessa Moshfegh, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

I have a rather strange relationship with the works of Ottessa Moshfegh, one that I feel she would completely appreciate. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a fitting tribute to the pandemic, left me wondering whether I actually liked it or not. Death in Her Hands gave me mixed feelings as well, starting out strong, but losing me in the end. The closest comparison to another author I can think of is Chuck Palahniuk, someone else that is able to dance close to the abyss of human darkness. My turning point happened when I read her collection of short stories, Homesick for Another World. I found that beneath the psychologically broken characters, I could appreciate the normalcy of life that Moshfegh was attempting to convey. She is adept at pouring out some disturbing material, and as a therapist, I find her works intriguing. Eileen is easily my favorite of her works, as I think it’s her most complete novel.

“I couldn’t be bothered to deal with fixing things. I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.”

While I’m no stranger to Moshfegh’s style in scouring the depths of human suffering, I was surprised with how much of a slow burn this novel was. Many reviews were referring to it as a mystery thriller, and while that’s not necessarily incorrect, I prefer to think of this work as a detailed character study of Eileen Dunlop. Moshfegh spends the majority of the novel allowing us to understand the backstory of our narrator, which then allows us to better make sense of the shocking events in the final act. Moshfegh is more of a character-driven writer than on actual plot. In an interview about the novel, she discusses how she never intended to write a work of noir fiction. The plot exists throughout the story, but it’s a subtle development. The real story is Eileen Dunlop, a character that could easily have been created by the late Shirley Jackson, another author whose psychological torments crafted some of the best fiction to ever exist.

Eileen as narrator tells her story from the present-day as an old woman, reflecting on those days leading up to Christmas Eve 1964. We learn of the dreary routines of the prison, her lack of friendships, and the horrible home life with her father. Eileen often wants to murder him due to his emotional abuse and his erratic behavior while drinking. Instead, she chooses to pacify him with alcohol and has developed a bit of a drinking problem herself. Having the story narrated by the older Eileen helps tremendously, as she gives insight to her perversions that lurked behind her prudishness or the way she malnourished herself due to her skewed body image. While we are only given the scantest of details about her life after the book’s end, it still felt like enough to know she grew as a person. While many readers might view the character as strange, particularly the more access they receive of her inner world, I see her as someone quite normal based upon the traumatic experiences of her upbringing. We have all encountered at least one Eileen in our lives, even if we didn’t realize it.

Ottessa Moshfegh, Photo Credit: Dru Donovan

One of the strengths in older Eileen’s narrative voice is the way she guides the reader’s expectations, such as clarifying that the guard she stalked had no major role in the story. The person that does play a significant role in the story, as well as Eileen’s disappearance, was the beautiful Rebecca Saint John, the prison’s new director of education. While the two new friends share the same pessimistic beliefs about humanity, Rebecca is quite outspoken and blunt regarding her thoughts and feelings. This acquaintance immediately turns to obsession, as Eileen views Rebecca as this perfect kindred spirit, someone who should be placed on a pedestal. Unfortunately, Eileen would learn that those placed too high on pedestals obscure their true natures. The near absence of plot comes center stage in a climatic chapter that has some of the best suspense writing ever in modern fiction. Eileen plunges from the edge into the deepest reaches of the abyss, but through the other side finds salvation. While the ending felt rather abrupt, I wasn’t surprised, as Moshfegh’s stories tend to slam the brakes rather than slowly coming to a stop.

Ottessa Moshfegh is a fascinating writer, but I also understand she may not be everyone’s cup of tea. She takes us to the dark corners of the mind, somewhere few authors dare to go. Yes, it can be quite bleak, but there’s also a good deal of humanity there as well. The meticulous exploration of the protagonist, as well as a “grab you by the throat” level of suspense, makes Eileen a compelling novel.

“The idea that my brains could be untangled, straightened out, and thus refashioned into a state of peace and sanity was a comforting fantasy.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.



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