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Ottessa Moshfegh’s EILEEN is a literary thriller masquerading as a character study. The eponymous Eileen --- elderly, jaded, been-there-done-that Eileen --- recounts the week that changed her life 50 years prior.

On December 18, 1964, Eileen is a college dropout in a small, isolated Massachusetts town. Her mother is dead, her father is an abusive alcoholic who hates her, and her sister may as well not even exist. She is a secretary at a local juvenile prison, where her co-workers are mostly horrid older men. She never has had a boyfriend or had sex, and is repulsed by the very thought of her body as sexual. And yet she fantasizes constantly about dating one of the prison guards.

"What makes EILEEN so how easily it could have been a short story or a novella, and yet it works perfectly as a novel."

Eileen is, according to her future self, a completely average young woman, if prudish. She is anxious and alone, and overflowing with unexpressed hatred of her parents, her sister, her job and herself. And then, a week later, she isn’t. It’s fairly standard stuff for literary fiction --- the exploration of what it means to break, to cross over from childhood to adulthood. It’s the kind of plot that mediocre “MFA fiction” stories thrive on.

But Moshfegh takes this subtle, internalized, done-to-death journey and imbues it with a pulsing dark energy. It begins quietly, a glimmer of something not quite right. Eileen’s disdain for her younger self, the way she completely dissociates from her 23-year-old self. Her younger self’s fixation on the icicles hanging from her front door. The refrain of Rebecca: Until Rebecca came, things were normal. Until Rebecca came, I was not myself.  When Rebecca came, the story exploded.

After being awarded the 2013 Plimpton Prize for her work in The Paris Review and the release of her excellent novella, McGLUE, late last year, it was logical for Moshfegh’s next project to be a novel. What makes EILEEN so unique, however, is how easily it could have been a short story or a novella, and yet it works perfectly as a novel. The main action occurs in the final few chapters, a thrilling yet deeply saddening confrontation that illustrates the difference between Eileen the narrator and Eileen the prison secretary.

This scene is fantastic and could have held its own in a top-shelf publication. However, the majority of the book is spent in the elderly Eileen’s solipsistic musings. She takes us through every aspect of her life. No event of her final week in X-Ville is left unexplored. It is the type of measured (and beautifully written) narration one would expect from a much shorter piece.

However, it is in Eileen’s most self-absorbed moments that we accrue the emotional momentum that makes the climax so fulfilling. There is no question that Rebecca, the Harvard-educated therapist who joins the prison staff to facilitate educational programs for the children, will play a part in the conclusion. Her absence is palpable in any scene in which she does not play a part; Moshfegh’s devotion to narration, to stretching her story out to its logical limits, elevates her beyond a simple character or object of desire. She is a force of nature --- an earthquake in which Eileen wants to fall.

Yes, this is a heady novel, but the moment of release, when Eileen and Rebecca see each other for who they really are, is the type of thrill one would expect from a thriller.

Reviewed by Matthew Mastricova on September 25, 2015

by Ottessa Moshfegh