EileenEileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
My rating: 4/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

I couldn’t be bothered to deal with fixing things. I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.

this book takes place in the early sixties and is about a woman named eileen dunlop, a tightly wound and inwardly unstable twenty-four-year old woman who works at a juvenile correctional facility for boys and lives with her alcoholic father in a shambles of a house. it chronicles the events of one week in a frigid new england winter after which she will unexpectedly leave town, never to return. it’s about obsession, crime, loneliness, frustration and a slow psychological unraveling.

this is one of the best character studies i can remember reading in a long time. eileen is an incredibly richly-detailed unreliable narrator; she is simultaneously sympathetic and repellent, and i could not look away. i love her voice, i love her dismal preoccupation with her body – its size, its secretions, its capacity as a humbling agent. i love how “outside” she is, how outwardly frigid yet prone to passionate fantasies. she is memorable, and when you inhale books the way i do, that statement says a lot. for me this character development trumped the mystery element, and the overall creepy tone was perfectly executed.

this is probably my favorite passage, because its focus keeps spiraling deeper and deeper, displaying her patterns of vicious self-scrutiny and rigorous self-control. it’s heartbreaking and fascinating, like so much of this book.

I’d never learned how to relate to people, much less how to speak up for myself. I preferred to sit and rage quietly. I’d been a silent child, the kind to suck my thumb long enough to buck out my front teeth. I was lucky they did not buck out too far, still of course I felt my mouth was horse-like and ugly, and so I barely smiled. When I did smile, I worked very hard to keep my top lip from riding up, something that required great restraint, self-awareness, and self-control. The time I spent disciplining that lip, you would not believe. I truly felt that the inside of my mouth was such a private area, caverns and folds of wet parting flesh, that letting anyone see into it was just as bad as spreading my legs. People did not chew gum as regularly then as we do now. That was considered very childish. So I kept a bottle of Listerine in my locker and swished it often, and sometimes swallowed it if I didn’t think I could get to the ladies’ room sink without having to open my mouth to speak. I didn’t want anyone to think I was susceptible to bad breath, or that there were any organic processes occurring inside my body at all. Having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself. This was the kind of girl I was.

so much of her experiences are made up of this combination of discomfort and endurance, of sacrifice and avoidance.

Outside I tested the temperature with the tip of my tongue, sticking it out into the biting wind until it hurt. That night it must have been down close to single digits. It hurt just to breathe. But I preferred cold weather over hot. Summers I was restless and cranky. I’d break out in rashes, have to lie in cold baths…I did not like to sweat in front of people. Such proof of carnality I found lewd, disgusting. Similarly, I did not like to dance or do sports. I did not listen to the Beatles or watch Ed Sullivan on TV. I wasn’t interested in fun or popularity back then. I preferred to read about ancient times, distant lands. Knowledge of anything current or faddish made me feel I was just a victim of isolation. If I avoided all that on purpose, I could believe I was in control.

control is a big part of eileen’s persona. her repression, her confined rage, the death mask she turns to the world. and yet, even in this she is erratic, deliberately compromising that control with alcohol, letting the mask slip a bit while deluding herself that she is still well-armored.

she suffers from body dysmorphia, hides herself under matronly clothes far too old for her, frequently from the closet of her deceased mother. she feels flaccid, huge, ugly, but occasionally lets slip details that contradict her self-assessment:

That night I lay on my cot and poked at my belly, counted my ribs, squished at my guts with gloved fingers. It was cold up in the attic, and that cot was flimsy. It just barely bore my weight: one hundred pounds with clothes on, if that.

but for all her self-possession, she is still prone to vivid erotic fantasies, tamped-down under her disgust with the body and its needs, but fiery for all that.

I spent many hours watching his biceps flick and pump as he turned each page of his comic book. When I imagine him now, I think of the way he’d swerve a toothpick around in his mouth. It was beautiful. It was poetry. I asked him once, nervous and ridiculous, whether he felt cold wearing just short sleeves in winter. He shrugged. Still waters ran deep, I thought, nearly swooning. It was pointless to fantasize, but I couldn’t help imagine one day he’d throw stones at my attic window, motorcycle steaming out in front of the house, melting the whole town to hell. I was not immune to that sort of thing.

however, i think this might be one of those books that is a “for me” without being a “for everyone.” the structure of the book is a bit of a tease – the narrative loops over and upon itself, slowly drawing out the tension, building suspense, leaving a trail of tantalizing hinty bread crumbs that will eventually lead up to the big WHAT HAPPENED, but when it comes time for the WHAT HAPPENED to HAPPEN, its a solid thump without being an explosion. which is better than a fizzle, but it’s not nearly as dramatic a release as all that pressurized tension seemed to be heading towards. could i be more vague? why yes, i believe i could.

i just don’t want to be too spoilery, while being completely honest. the tension and the build here is perfect hitchcock/highsmith, but the payoff itself is not a complete success in the ratio of expectation to delivery. for me, this is often the case with mystery/psychological suspense novels, so it didn’t mar my enjoyment one bit, but i can see how some would be frustrated. and who knows – maybe for you it WILL be explosive and satisfying. i’m just me. and i loved both the character and the thick and claustrophobic writing enough to excuse what was, for me, a somewhat unsatisfying ending. like The Girl on the Train, it’s the ride of the read that carries this book, not the way it resolves. and i loved the ride.

read my reviews on goodreads

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