On Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen
My reading has been lagging, lately. Never has my life felt more static. Nor more charged. I’ve been sleeping less, drinking more. I am wildly, frighteningly happy. I am moving to Manhattan in two months, and this is the smallest of my joys. The other day, I stole this, which itself was poached from a conversation overheard on a train: “I am tired of being tired of being tired.” From the same book, some pages later: “Afraid to be happy. Content to be sad.” Biking to work the other morning, I glimpsed a number of shooting stars in my periphery, high and to my left, dying fires in a paling sky. I used to say that my greatest fear was ending up average, but I’ve known for a number of years that it’s of being abandoned. Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel, recommended to me relentlessly for at least two years, lent to me by someone I hold in higher esteem than anyone else, is a novel about abandonment and want. It is a novel about the insidiousness of entrapment, the difficulty of breaking free. It took me five days longer than it should have, but I finished Eileen.
Eileen, the narrator of Eileen, represents the best of what narrators can be, and does so, for the most part, for one reason: the story she is telling changed her. Her speaking self is different from the self for whom Eileen’s ugly history takes place. “These days I’m afraid I’m too outspoken, too loving,” she reflects, toward the beginning of the novel’s third act. “I’m a sap, too passionate, too effusive, too much. Back then I was just an odd young woman. An awkward youngster. Angst wasn’t quite so mainstream back then.” Everything twenty-four-year-old Eileen does is in response to this strangeness. She is a prude, a thorough virgin at twenty-four. She reads books about unforgivable crimes, the most sadistic of acts. Her life is spent caring for her alcoholic father, handling intakes and visitations for the boy’s prison where she works. Decades later, she looks back on the arrival of Rebecca, a mysterious socialite from Who Knows Where, and tells us of the crime they together committed. It’s less a confession than Eileen’s attempt to understand herself, to come to terms with what she did. Only by the first of these metrics can her telling be considered a success.
I’ll say more about this in a bit, but I think the reason I ended up liking Eileen more than My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh’s followup, was because I felt Eileen had changed more than My Year’s unnamed narrator by the novel’s end. She transforms from a woman paralyzed by her upbringing to one able to act in the wider world. In the beginning, she’s fixated on a number of things, all of them small. Randy, her crush, is a cigarette-smoking, beef-reeking security guard. Her bowel movements are rare, her womanly attributes (by her own admission) intentionally nondescript. And yet: when, in the aftermath of the novel’s defining act, she meets her first husband in the back of a Manhattan movie theater, it comes as no surprise. In the moments before Eileen decides to leave X-ville, the only home she’s ever known, forever, Rebecca tells her, “Still, nobody wants to admit they want to be bad, do bad things.” It’s tempting, having finished the novel, to ascribe these words to Eileen: she wanted to be bad, do bad things, and therefore did what she did. But I think this is reductive in a way that does her and the novel a disservice. Passivity does not induce a state in which evil is inevitable—only action. And not even that. It is the easiest thing in the world to remain safely, miserably stuck. Which is why Eileen, as reprehensible as her final deed might be, never becomes a character we cannot forgive. To move forward, to decide, to break free—this is all anyone, in the end, wants. And it is what Eileen does, despite all else.
The tattoo on my left wrist—no one can imagine nothing—represents, to me, a number of things. I’ve written before of its implicit promise to not end things, to live and work for a brighter day. I’ve said less about what these words say about the power of imagination, though—mostly because I am mortally aware of the potential for cringe. What Eileen does is say what I wish I could say, and which I will now attempt to paraphrase nonetheless. No one—not Eileen, not you, not me—is content with mundanity. Even those things that make it appear that we are—things like love and family and home—feel, in the moment, extraordinary, no matter how ordinary they might be. That the most understandable thing Eileen does in the novel is commit an almost unforgivable crime is a testament to this truth. We can imagine anything, but we cannot imagine nothing. Nonexistence is not even blackness—it’s blankness. It’s nothing. Death is a comfort, by comparison. What Eileen wants, needs—and what Moshfegh captures so completely—is how desperately we wish to act in the face of this absence, and how difficult this action is. Eileen doesn’t embrace her destiny. She doesn’t even seize it, even if Rebecca might explain away her conspirator’s actions as such. She manufactures it. And what Eileen asserts, and what I firmly believe, is that many of us would do the same.