Ottessa Moshfegh has done something extraordinary. Her first novel, Eileen, contains one of the most thorough and interesting portraits of unhappiness (edging into depression) that I have ever seen. The narrator, adult, self-contained, solitary Eileen, is narrating events of the week (fifty years earlier) leading up to the day she left her home forever. The entirety of the plot can be summarized in one sentence: this is why Eileen left home. The action doesn’t really start until you’ve read 7/8ths of the novel.
That sounds incredibly boring. It isn’t. As you read about that last monotonous week the narrator very slowly strips herself naked revealing herself to the reader as someone simultaneously beautiful and nearly obscenely grotesque. At first, she tries to present herself as normal, ‘average, really’. She talks about her acne scars, being thin but thinking that she’s fat. She talks about living with her ‘difficult’ father.
Eileen wants to talk, but she is afraid, desperately afraid, of really being heard. Slowly, she warms to her audience. She begins to open up. We hear about her father’s abuse. We see her filthy house (blue mould caught in the cracks of the kitchen counter), we hear about her co-workers at the boy’s prison. We learn that she doesn’t bathe, that she only wears her dead mother’s clothes, that she chews up her food but then she spits it out before she can absorb the calories. We hear about the night she spent curled up next to her mother’s cold corpse. We learn that she’s not thin, but anorexic. We hear about her bathroom habits, her laxative addiction, we feel her terror at the fact of the world.
We see the town as an extension of this breaking self, with everyone in it doing their best to disguise some essential, central death, and we want her to escape from it.
I have never seen a better portrait of post-adolescent despair. She’s a less whiny, more accurate, female Holden Caulfield; a creature self-aware enough to know that, even as she rails against the ‘phonies’, she’s pretty damned phony herself. This is Eileen, working at the prison:
I was young enough, and had been enslaved enough by my public school education and my father and his Catholicism, and was frightened enough of being punished or questioned or singled out, that I obeyed every rule there was at Moorehead. I followed every procedure. I clocked in and out every day on time . I was a shoplifter, a pervert, you might say, and a liar, of course, but nobody knew that. I would enforce the rules all the more , for didn’t that prove that I lived by a high moral code? That I was good? That I couldn’t possibly want to hike up my skirt and move my runny bowels all over the linoleum floor? I understood perfectly that the rule that prohibited parents from giving gifts to their children was to keep the boys in a state of desperation.
Eileen knows, first hand, that surviving in that state is not morally improving.
I read the first 220 pages of the novel in stages. For the first 50 or so I was waiting, impatiently, for the story to start. By the time I was halfway through, I no longer cared. So, when the story (as we usually think of the term) finally started on page 221(40 pages from the end) I was absolutely blown away. There was a purpose to this deeply-psychological, in depth character study. And it was incredible.
You’ll have to trust me on this because if I write just one more word about it, I’ll give the trick away, and I could not stand to brutalize you like that.