“I was invisible. I was furniture.”
-Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh (2015)
Eileen is a young woman, left to nurse her alcoholic father after the death of her mother. Left alone together, their relationship has turned septic. They have let the wounds between them become infected, and the infection has spread further into their lives. Their house is squalid and they fester in it. Despite her father’s obvious decline, his status as a respected ex-cop gives him a free pass. The local police turn a blind eye to his drink-driving and threatening behaviour and Eileen resents them for it.
From the outside, Eileen is unremarkable, but her average appearance hides a multitude of unusual behaviours. She wears her mother’s clothes, is embarrassed by natural bodily functions, and harbours a frozen field mouse in the glove compartment of her car. She barely eats, relies heavily on laxatives and takes great care to hide any evidence that she sweats.
Her town is home to a juvenile prison for boys, where she works, largely antipathetic to the boy’s and the treatment they are subjected to. She hates her co-workers but fantasises about one of the prison guards, Randy, and sometimes sits outside his house imagining the start of a love affair that never materialises. She dreams of escaping, leaving the town and her father behind, of finally realising her potential, but is seems as if she will never truly leave. The stagnancy of the town has settled in her.
Rage fills her days, often directed at those around her, but perhaps that anger is misdirected, because the things she hates in others are often reflected back in her.
The arrival of Rebecca changes things. Eileen sees the glamorous outsider as a potential comrade, someone who sees the bigger picture, someone superior to the town’s residents. She sets out to befriend her new co-worker, but the cosmopolitan newcomer isn’t the sophisticated ally she anticipated. While she does seem more sympathetic to the unjust treatment of the boys, and less prepared to turn the other cheek, Rebecca’s romantic ideals make her act irrationally, and she’s not equipped to deal with the consequences.
Moshfegh’s writing is hypnotic. Eileen is such an intriguing character repellent but relatable. The things she is ashamed of, and that elicits shame in us, are things that we are all guilty of. In some respects, she is still a neglected child, petulant and looking for a way to rebel. Yet, the obvious presence of her retrospective narration, suggests she is a character looking to reshape or justify her past.