Review Content Warning: Alcoholism mention
Book Content Warning: Alcoholism, Emotional Abuse, Violence, Discussions of Pedophilia, Sexual Content, Death, Sexual Abuse
“I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s.“Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen
Over the past couple decades, consumers have fallen in love with the “strong female protagonist,” but I wouldn’t apply this cliche right away to Ottessa Moshfegh’s main characters — especially not Eileen’s titular character, a young woman stagnating in her hometown and her own self-pity in the 1960s. Eileen is the daughter of a manipulative alcoholic ex-cop widower, and a secretary at a boys’ prison. She spends her free time running to the liquor store for her father, stalking one of the prison guards, and hating her own body. Eileen has an intimate and obsessive relationship with her prison workplace. This is both integral to the main plot and brings real-life importance to the novel; Moshfegh does not ignore the sociopolitical implications of her main character being a young white woman in a position of power in a prison for young men.
Like Moshfegh’s follow-up novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Eileen is immersive, intense, and character-driven. Moshfegh’s prose is clear and exacting. The book is full of cold winter imagery, and the narrator is so spiteful of the people around her — a recipe resulting in a book that reads a bit like a Charles Dickens novel, if Dickens had been born in 20th-century New England.
The novel’s point of view is not straightforward; the Eileen providing narration is in her seventies, in the modern day, but the plot occurs in Eileen’s mid-twenties. Hearing from Eileen in her old age rather than during her coming-of-age puts distance between the reader and the harshness of reality. Reading a story through memories feels like an old movie, a movie that predates the Second World War. There is a softness to it in places where contemporary narration would come across harshly, because of its strict, definitional adherence to reality. Eileen is able to editorialize the past, to construct a narrative out of her life, only because she is standing at the end of it, looking back. Stories told from memory are stories that have the benefit of time, and it’s incredible that Moshfegh managed to capture the effects of the passage of time with such subtlety despite being so young herself. Memories are no less true than present experiences, but they have been polished as time erodes detail. When they are viewed across time, the image is blurred.
By writing a novel through the main character’s memories, Moshfegh allows narrator Eileen to opine on the actions, thoughts, words, and feelings of young Eileen. She laments her own mistakes, pointing out her self-absorption, hypocrisy, and naivete. Narrator Eileen attests that she has had many “normal” relationships since leaving her hometown. She lives a solitary life because she knows what she wants and what she wants is to be alone. Eileen of the past is painfully alone, a poignant difference that points to a deeper, healthier understanding of herself that she gained during the course of her life.
Eileen considers memory, self-actualization, alcoholism, and violence in valuable ways, ways which are made relevant to reality by the setting: a prison for boys and young men. The boys’ prison is integral to the plot, and its depiction communicates Moshfegh’s stance on prisons. None of the characters that she writes are pleasant, but the worst are those men who mistreat the incarcerated youths and those who are indifferent to the young men’s plight entirely. Eileen herself is neither malicious nor apathetic — she feels intrigued by the prisoners, but she doesn’t foster empathy for them. She acknowledges the violence and injustice of the prison situation, but she doesn’t even think about trying to intervene. In her personal life, Eileen faces extreme emotional abuse, and it is this contrast between her home, a place cruel to only her, and workplace, which is cruel only to others, that really allows Moshfegh to explore the theme of American incarceration to its fullest. Eileen is a clear critique of abuse and neglect occurring in the 20th century American prison system, making it not only a good story, but an important story.
Eileen is a novel which explores the moral gray areas of modern life. What responsibilities do victims of abuse and trauma have to prevent the abuse of others? How do bystander attitudes perpetuate inequities and allow acts of violence to proceed? Moshfegh is a master of using character, setting, and imagery to ask important questions like these of her audience.
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH is a fiction writer from New England. Eileen, her first novel, was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Death in Her Hands, her second and third novels, were New York Times bestsellers. She is also the author of the short story collection Homesick for Another World and a novella, McGlue. She lives in Southern California.
Eileen can be purchased here.