Even though Ottessa Moshfegh's debut novel, Eileen, is set in the 1960s, her eponymous protagonist, Eileen Dunlop, is so real that she could have walked straight out of 2015. In Eileen , Moshfegh explores one woman's self-loathing. The days surrounding Christmas 1963 find Eileen chronically unhappy and all too aware of her life's shortcomings: she works at a boys prison, pines after a hunky security guard, and lives with her alcoholic father in squalid disarray (think "candy dish full of dead ants"). Yet, when a new staff member joins the prison, Eileen finds herself the lynchpin in a seedy plot that will forever alter her life.
Yeah, things are pretty dark here — and Eileen is one heck of a guide through all of this. I have a theory that she's going to be a pretty polarizing character: there are readers who'll want to go on a shoplifting spree with Eileen (she's a mild keptomaniac)... and readers who'll want to hide from her. But both those of you who are anti-Eileen and those who are pro-Eileen will have the same thing in common, regardless of how you feel about her: you're going to see parts of yourself in her. Whether you want to embrace that fact or run from it is totally your call.
Here are eight ways you'll find Eileen so familiar:
Aren't we all a little fascinated by the dark side? (Hello, this year's Gone Girl .) Eileen isn't your typical 1960s secretary, despite her job description at Moorehead Prison.
I didn't really read books about flowers or home economics. I liked books about awful things — murder, illness, death. I remember selecting one of the thickest books from the public library, a chronicle of ancient Egyptian medicine, to study the gruesome practice of pulling the brains of the dead out through the nose like skeins of yarn. I liked to think of my brain like that, tangled up in my skull.
She Gets Girl-Crushes
When the glamorous Rebecca Saint John joins the Moorehead staff, Eileen isn't just awed by her new colleagues looks. Like you and me, her feelings are more complicated:
Her eyes were an odd shade of blue. There was something manufactured about that color. It was a shade of blue like a swimming pool in an ad for a tropical getaway ... My own eyes, I thought, were like shallow lake water, green, murky, full of slime and sand. Needless to say, I felt completely insulted and horrible about myself in the presence of this beautiful woman.
She Has Some Sketchy Habits
If you're not happy with yourself, odds are you're going to act out. Meet Eileen: she stores a dead mouse she finds outside her house in the glove compartment and defaces private property, like in this scene, at a boutique:
The dress clearly did not fit me, and yet I wanted it ... I considered pulling one of the metallic baubles loose and slipping it in my purse along with the panty hose. But instead I used the sharp point of my car key to poke a hole in the inside lining around the hem and tore it a little.
Her Hygiene's Not... On Fleek
Ever have one of those weeks when you can't bring yourself to shower? Or those months where your fingers become your hairbrush? Eileen is addicted to laxatives, plus she's a... picky eater. Here she is, snacking in bed:
I pulled chocolates from a tin and chewed and spat them out one by one into the crinkly brown paper they came in.
She Has Daddy Issues
OK, that's putting it mildly. Eileen's feelings about her father are pretty extreme.
Here was the crux of my dilemma: I felt like killing my father, but I didn't want him to die.
And Body Image Issues
Like so many people, Eileen's self-perception is distorted. (Fortunately, her older self realizes that criticalness was for naught.) Still, at 24, Eileen loathes her body:
I had a bad habit of drumming my fists on my stomach and pinching the negligible amount of fat on my thighs. I sincerely believed that if there were less of me, I would have fewer problems.
Or hyperbolic. Or one of those people who deadpans something that makes your jaw drop. Here's how Eileen hoped to lose her virginity:
Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me — Randy, ideally.
She Believes In The Power Of Complete And Total Reinvention
"In a week, I would run away from home and never go back," Moshfegh writes. "This is the story of how I disappeared." Eileen's story isn't one of simple self-acceptance: it's about becoming the woman she's destined to become by leaving her lesser self in the dust.
Images: Mo Riza/Flickr; Giphy (8)