Six pages into Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh’s narrator-protagonist declares, ‘this isn’t a story of how awful my father was.’ This is not strictly true. Sixty-seven pages later his awfulness is still being dissected: ‘He had no loyalty to me. He was never proud of me. He never praised me. He simply didn’t like me.’ Eileen tells the story of an infatuation, and these are invariably less about the infatuee than about whatever private misery the obsessor is fleeing. The titular heroine is physically unprepossessing, dowdy, shy and naive. She lives in a humdrum town called Xville with her father, an alcoholic retired policeman who subjects her to relentless psychological abuse, and works at a young offenders’ institute. When she is befriended by a new colleague called Rebecca Saint John, who is beautiful, witty and urbane, her world lights up: meeting Rebecca ‘was like learning to dance, discovering jazz’. Rebecca, it transpires, has certain rather utopian notions about criminal justice, to which end she enlists Eileen, hopelessly in her thrall, in a bizarre vigilante escapade.
While Eileen casts a clear nod to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (the text contains at least three allusions to it), its intellectual thrust is more unambiguously sociological than the 1938 noir classic. This novel is less a psychological thriller than a meditation on the shaping of character and the things that make a person ‘good’, from dress and comportment to matters of sex and violence. The narrator’s deep sense of mortification and bodily shame is itemised in candid references to bowel movements and menstruation, but her gaze is just as often turned outwards. Eileen evinces an anthropologist’s curiosity about the moral squalor of Xville’s underclass, a provincial white-trash milieu of Ritas and Randys whom she imagines living in ‘houses full of drunken yelling … men with long hair, and fleshy, wrinkly women with rotted teeth and tattoos’. Conversely, she is ambivalent about the perfect facades of the respectable districts – there is, she notes, an inherent morbidity in obsessive orderliness. Drawing on an old adage about how the most dangerous people in a prison are not the inmates but the people who work there, Moshfegh’s novel articulates a profound scepticism about power: prison authorities, parents and police are corrupt and unaccountable.
Eileen’s mature self-awareness – she narrates the events as an old woman, many years after they have happened – gives us flickers of ironic self-deprecation (‘I found myself on a street called Moody. Of course I did’) and flashes of weary acerbity. Recalling that she felt sadder about the passing of her dog than of her mother, she makes a caustic dig at society’s fetishisation of psychological sleuthing: ‘My mother was mean and that dog was nice. One doesn’t need a college degree.’ But the privilege of hindsight can also be something of a burden, in so far as it may tempt a narrator into showing their hand too soon. Crushes born of admiration, with their curious inverted narcissism, are fascinating things; disappointingly, rather than subtly teasing out the underlying dynamics of Eileen’s infatuation, Moshfegh lays them bare with explicatory ex post facto insight. Remembering her attraction to an unattractive but officious male warden, Eileen wonders if ‘perhaps I envied his self-possession’. Of her awestruck response to meeting Rebecca, she recalls: ‘that was how impressionable and lonely I was.’ The case is open and shut.
Moshfegh seems well aware that she is dealing in well-worn motifs: Rebecca’s pen portrait is a formulaic sketch of empowered, untamable femininity – she has wild red hair, seems indifferent to men and smokes with great poise – while Eileen’s cruel father is a caricature of toxic masculinity. ‘If he sounds trite, he was trite. He was very trite,’ writes Moshfegh. It’s a clever and funny way of deflecting criticism, but the defensiveness is telling: leaving aside the question of whether it is ever possible for a person to be trite, it is perfectly fine to deal in stock types if you are writing genre fiction, less so if your aspirations are more ambitious. Eileen’s compelling intellectual preoccupations suggest pretensions to the latter, but in its execution it is closer to the former.