Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

My husband and I finished The Americans last week. If you are pensive and stew in your emotions a bit – not that I know this from experience or anything – you will probably need to stare off into space for a while, shed some tears, read all the spoiler-filled recaps online (now that there is nothing to spoil), discuss ad nauseam with anyone who has seen the finale, sit around basically going “hmmmmm” some more, and perhaps play The Americans FX playlist on Spotify so you can relive all the emotion. Just some examples. (You will feel better after two days of this, by the way.)

No spoilers here, but if you know anything at all about The Americans, you can deduce that “identity” is the centerpiece of this tale. “Identity” isn’t just a wee little theme – it’s the whole she-bang. The main course, not the after-dinner mint. On the macro level, you’ve got two Russians who have posed as Americans for over 20 years (and have two American-born kids): What “are” they? Can one still be Russian if living inside a culture diametrically at opposition with one’s homeland? Then on the micro level: Let’s take a look at some of the crazy disguises that Elizabeth and Philip have had to don:

americans disguises.png

It’s scary stuff. Not just because of the gruesome things that Elizabeth and Philip do because they can deftly take on another persona and (sort of) leave the guilt behind with a discarded wig. But also because mentally, the waters get muddied: Who, really, are they? And more importantly, if they decide to “be a better version of themselves,” who do they use as a comparison? (If you’re an Americans viewer you’ll know that est, the popular self-help movement of the 70s, plays a bit role. Coincidence? I think not! Everyone – even a Russian spy – is on the perpetual hunt for a “better” self.)

The spooky in me honors the spooky in you. We live in a time fraught with much tension and finger-pointing, and I believe that we (collectively) really, really like to look to others to either bolster our own sense of self or, conversely, to inadvertently make ourselves feel like crap. It seems to me that sometimes the scariest thing is looking inward. And that is what is so spooky about reading Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.

Let me say right here that someone I know read this book on my recommendation, and here’s her condensed review: “Holy Shit!” Let’s just be upfront about the fact that Eileen is a dark, psychological thriller. I knew from the get-go that my mind was being played with, but I wasn’t quite sure what Moshfegh was doing with it.

Step 1 for Self Improvement: Breathe. (I think this is the “baby step” version.)

Eileen Dunlop, a 24-year-old woman from a small Massachusetts town (“X-ville”), wants out and wants better but at the same time is disgusted by, it seems, her own humanity. She is both intrigued and repulsed by her own body (and its functions). She rumbles in morbid thoughts about her abusive father who has manipulated her into a caregiver role after Eileen’s mother dies and her sister moves on to a new life. And she can’t figure out how to escape.

Almost immediately, Moshfegh puts these words from Eileen on the page: “But I deplored silence. I deplored stillness. I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time. I tried to control myself, and that only made me more awkward, unhappier, and angrier. I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life—the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.”

The book then delineates the “last days that [she is] that angry little Eileen” – readers learn right away that changes are coming for Eileen. What is the identity of present-day Eileen? But Moshfegh leaves us guessing: Will Eileen dye her hair and go on a crime spree and then have to go into hiding? (Just thinking of The Americans here.) Does she become a man? Honestly, both of these thoughts crossed my mind. Our dear protagonist could have become an alien by page 200 as far as I knew as I read along.

Know Thyself! Here’s Socrates looking in a mirror.

However, readers slowly learn who she wants to be. About a third into the book, Rebecca saunters in. A Harvard-educated researcher hired by the boys’ prison where Eileen works, Rebecca provides Eileen with a real-life example of a “better person” (well, “better” in a superficial, material sense, at least): “…I thought of Rebecca, whose arrival at Moorehead seemed like a sweet promise from God that my situation could improve. I was no longer alone. Finally, here was a friend I could admire and open up to, who could understand me, my plight, and help me rise above it. She was my ticket to a new life. And she was so clever and beautiful, I thought, the embodiment of all my fantasies for myself. I knew I couldn’t be her, but I could be with her, and that was enough to thrill me.”

After a night out with Rebecca, Eileen ponders, “I was someone important at last…I’d been Rebecca for a night. I’d been someone else completely.” Soon it starts getting creepy, though, as Moshfegh sprinkles tidbits here and there that leave the reader to believe that something with Rebecca is a little…off. (A sampling of my own wild guesses included: Rebecca is a figment of Eileen’s imagination, Rebecca is psychotic, Rebecca is Russian and is infiltrating the boys prison to convert new recruits. [Like I said, I was really affected by The Americans.])

Got it!

We’re drawn to spectacle – and specter – because it makes us feel safe. “At least I’m not…” or “I’m better than…” I think Keri Russell’s character killed upwards of 35 people throughout the duration of The Americans. Yeah, I think I might be a “better” person than her. (For the record, I’ve committed zero murders.)

But what made The Americans so moving – and what elevates Eileen to great literature instead of simply being pigeonholed as a cheap “suspense novel” – is the universality of emotion. We’ve all got something minorly creepy inside of us – you know, gossip, jealousy, anger, lack of self-control. Those things make us human; it’s just that a lot of us hide it better. So reading a book like Eileen allows us to dance with that creepiness a bit, all while stating assuredly, “But at least I’m not her!”

The spooky in me honors the spooky in you. Takes one to know one when it comes to scary stuff, which is maybe why we like to chase the thrill with a suspenseful movie, television show, or book. Namaste. Or rather: Boo!

This costume (a pile of laundry) from my school days was so good that I don’t even know who it was.

— Related:

For a good combo of spooky and humorous, check out Ghosts in the Burbs, a blog and podcast about “the people who live in Wellesley, MA and the ghosts (and monsters) who haunt them.”

Yellow TAPE: A True Crime Trivia Show is celebrating its first anniversary October 3 at Q.E.D Astoria. If you’re in NYC, go check it out. My friend Rebekah (creator and producer) promises that “You’ll Laugh, You’ll Cry, You Will Not Die!” (Get your tix HERE; a portion of proceeds for all her shows go to Innocence Project.)

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