Looking back at the here and now – Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is the story of a twenty something woman’s escape from New England in 1964. She initially represents a stark contrast to the stereotype of the swinging, and sometimes turbulent sixties, struggling with her alcoholic father, life in small town America and her work at the city’s prison for young offenders.

EileenOne of the things that intrigued me most about the book was the telling of the story and the way that it moves between different times within the narration.   The first chapter, entitled 1964, provides an introduction to Eileen.  The opening lines both place Eileen front and centre of the story, but suggest that she is in the background of the lives around her.

“I looked like a girl you’d expect to see on a city bus, reading some clothbound book from the library about plants or geography, perhaps wearing a net over my light brown hair.  You might take me for a nursing student or a typist, note the nervous hands, a foot tapping, bitten lip.  I looked like nothing special.”

We learn shortly afterward that she is narrating the story from a long time after the events it describes,

“And back then – this was fifty years ago – I was a prude.”

This also allows us to see that there will be changes in Eileen’s life, that she will move on from the life

The subsequent chapters cover a period of seven days, and as Eileen indicates

“My last days as that angry little Eileen took place in late December, in the brutal cold town where I was born and raised.”

As the story progresses through the seven days up to Christmas Day Eileen describes her work at the prison and the people she works with, including her fantasies about one of the guards.  She also sets her relationship with her father, a former policeman who was retired out of service because of his drunkenness, and the impact that the death of her mother had on them.    It is the arrival of Rebecca St John, who’s name hints at unobtainable beauty as well as re-birth and revelation, which provides the catalyst for Eileen to move on.

The story operates in three “timezones”.  The first is that the story is being narrated from 2014, with clear indications that Eileen will move on from her humdrum life in the anonymous town, which she calls X-ville, into more eventful experiences

“If I’d known just how dangerous a place I was escaping to, I may never have left”

Or through her references future husbands, despite the doubts that Eileen has in her own looks and capacity to form relationships

The second space for time appears as Eileen looks back to times before the week in question.  We gain an understanding of her history, the events that up to this week have shaped her and the story.

“Before I go on describing the events of that Saturday, I should mention the gun again.  When I was growing up, my father would sit at the kitchen table after dinner and clean it, explain all of its mechanics and the necessity of its upkeep.”

Or in relation to Eileen and her mother

“Other times though, the basement bore the grim tinge of memories of my mother and how much time she spent down there – doing what for so long? I still don’t know.  Coming up with a basket of clean clothes or linens on her hip, sniffling, grunting, she would tell me to get going, clean my room, brush my hair, read a book, leave her alone.”

Moshfegh sets out to link Eileen’s experiences to her mother’s life and death, particularly through her wearing of her mother’s clothes, which brings the past in to the present (1964).

The third timezone in which the story is told is the present, Christmas 1964, although obviously narrated from 2014.

The reader’s knowledge that Eileen will move on from X-Ville, but not the circumstances which bring it about allows the tension and intrigue to successfully build up and keep you engaged in the story.  This is further strengthened by understanding Eileen’s history and background, and it is the layering of time within the story that I believe allows this to happen.

I’m sure that this technique, of multiples times within a single narration, appears in various forms within lots of books, and it rang bells as I read Eileen.   What I think Moshfegh manages to do well is to build up the character of Eileen, to create a strong degree of sympathy for her and her situation where, whilst knowing that her experience of X-ville ends at a specific point in the story, and knowing this throughout the story does not diminish its potency.