The narrator of "Eileen" is so painfully introverted and isolated in her thoughts I felt instantly on edge and utterly compelled by her story. As a now elderly woman, Eileen recounts a week in her life back in 1964 when she was a young woman who lived a very claustrophobic life with her alcoholic widower father. At that time she was friendless, worked in a correctional facility for young offenders and spent her free time on booze runs for her father or in the attic reading issues of National Geographic. Although she was secretly plotting to run away from her small New England town, the arrival of an attractive new staff member named Rebecca creates a dynamic tension that changes everything. Filled with squeamish descriptions of Eileen’s extremely self conscious physical and mental state, this sinister novel builds to a dramatic conclusion
The narrator of this novel reminded me slightly of “The Looking-Glass Sisters” because she’s so overwhelmingly uncomfortable in her own skin and lives in an isolated damaged household. Eileen is so acutely embarrassed by her own physical being that she even states “Having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself.” She has a heightened awareness of the smells and functions of her body. With so much disdain for her own being it’s no wonder she doesn’t have the self confidence to make any friends, let alone find a relationship. She has a romantic obsession for a man and frequently lingers outside his house. Eileen is equally critical and vile about other people as she is about herself. The comments she makes about her colleagues are frequently vicious and perverse. In an understated way she claims: “Looking back I’d say I was barely civilised. There was a reason I worked at the prison, after all. I wasn’t exactly a pleasant person.”
The only close relationship she has is with her father a man who drinks copious amounts of gin each day, protectively clings to his gun from his days in the police force and treats Eileen with abominable disdain. Eileen came back to live with him when her mother grew gravely ill, but since her mother’s death continued to stay with him far longer than she should have. Her beautiful and more confident sister Joanie left quite some time ago. Eileen skulks through life hiding her emotional state behind what she terms her “death mask” and flails about within her twisted fantasies. Throughout the novel I felt we were meant to question how truthful Eileen is being with the reader because it’s about a period in her life so far in the past. Also, she’s quite cagey with certain details. For instance, she never names this town of her youth referring to it cryptically as X-ville.
Eileen is so determinedly unlikeable that she’s actually quite fun to read about. I enjoyed her indulgent descriptions of repulsion for almost everything and everyone around her. It’s quite fun reading about someone living so firmly within her own rules that she shoplifts, creates teasing questionnaires for the mothers of the imprisoned delinquents and engages in other antisocial behaviour. Sometimes she’s flat out bitchy like in her judgement of one woman where she states “Her lipstick was a cheap insincere fuchsia.” In her disdain for the human condition she also explores a dark side of humanity from a highly unique angle. For instance, she feels that “Violence was just another function of the body, no less unusual than sweating or vomiting. It sat on the same shelf as sexual intercourse. The two got mixed up quite often, it seemed.” Anyone from the outside looking in on her situation would probably disagree and understand how a toxic situation has created a very damaged individual. But these strident opinions and alarming situations feel quite natural for Eileen because it’s all she’s known.
Hovering in the background is the knowledge that something very sinister has occurred, but the reader doesn’t fully understand the situation until towards the end of the novel. I enjoyed how Ottessa Moshfegh builds this tension with creepy descriptions and teasing passages which gradually build up an alarming amount of dread. Eileen is someone who only lives by her own moral code and it’s alarming to discover from her that “I didn’t believe in heaven, but I did believe in hell.” The consequences of her particular belief system create an atmosphere of tension which makes for compulsive reading. “Eileen” is a wickedly unsettling and mesmerising novel.