“In a week, I would run away from home and never go back. This is the story of how I disappeared.”
The narrator, of Ottessa Moshfegh’s book, the titular Eileen, is looking back on a pivotal week in her life. The specific period in question is the week running up to Christmas fifty years earlier (1964). Presented in day-long chapters, we slowly learn the prescient facts of her life. Eileen lives in a small New England town she calls ‘X-ville’ where she works as a secretary in a local young offenders institution, where she also secretly lusts after a guard called Randy: an interest which verge on obsession. Meanwhile at home, she lives with her ex-cop father, a drunk she loathes and often wishes dead. Her mother , for whom she also had no great love, died several years earlier. Despite this she often walk around in her dead mother’s clothes. Life is dull, uneventful, hate filled, lacking love.
All this bleak monotony is swept aside with the arrival of Rebecca. Rebecca has been hired as the Prison’s new director of education at the young offenders institution. She personifies everything Eileen feels she is not: beautiful, confident and glamorous Vs ‘ugly, disgusting, unfit for the world’. Despite this, the two quickly form an unlikely bond and Eileen quickly shifts her infatuation with Randy to Rebecca. You suspect it’s an infatuation that wont end well for Eileen.
This is a fairly bleak book, laden with drudgery and doom and gloom. Life for Eileen is hell, an existence built on life of mental and physical abuse. “Why should my heart ache for anyone but myself? If anyone was trapped and suffering and abused it was me. I was the only one whose pain was real. Mine”
It is a life that is almost intolerable, although as she notes: “[I]t was tolerable. I’d been tolerating it, after all.”
This oppressive bleakness is juxtaposed by an ever present tension. You don’t know what the catalyst is that will lead Eileen to leave town and never going back, but you suspect it will be serious. This tension is part of a wonderful noirish undertone to the book, and to the dialogue, which is almost Chandler-esque at times. Indeed there were also echoes of that other great Raymond , Raymond Carver in Moshfegh’s style too, so it was no surprise to learn she is also a short story writer.
For six of its seven days it is all terrific stuff. Relentlessly grim, but utterly compelling. Holding it all together, is the totally absorbing character of Eileen. She is a totally convincing mix of self delusion and insight. Someone who you feel sorry for and pity one minute, and are repulsed by the next. Someone you are willing to escape.
But, the book is let down by its final day where things get a bit movie of the week thriller 101. I have to confess it really didn’t work for me. It somehow seemed to lack the same lyrical quality as the rest of the book, and didn’t feel as genuine or believable as what had come before. But this is a minor criticism of a book that has so much else to recommend it. Moshfegh is a gifted writer, and this may even lead me to check out her short stories once I’ve made it through the long-list.
The high quality of this year’s long-list continues.