Ottessa Moshfegh’s excellent debut novel, “Eileen,” contains a nightmare rendering of 1960s working-class New England. Its setting, a town referred to only as X-ville, is a frozen place utterly without character, populated by cold, grim, repressed, tradition-bound people locked into pointless, regimented lives.
Eileen Dunlop, the eponymous protagonist and unhappy X-ville denizen, spends her days mired in righteous disgust: for her alcoholic father, a retired police officer whose dementia conjures dangerous, imaginary mobsters; for the “soured and flat” middle-aged women with “disgusting” husbands who work with her at a juvenile detention facility and make her want to vomit. “I loathed just about everybody back then,” Eileen confesses. She saves the most disgust for herself, because she is not beautiful. “I hated my face with a passion,” she reflects.
Coming from a 15-year-old, such sentiments might be sort of cute. Eileen, however, is 23, still pinioned under innumerable layers of adolescent self-consciousness. These hang-ups result in discomfiting riffs about body horror that wouldn’t be out of place in a Ben Marcus novel.
“I felt my mouth was horselike and ugly, so I barely smiled,” she confesses in an early passage. “When I did smile, I worked hard to keep my top lip from riding up, something that required great restraint, self-awareness, and self-control. The time I spent disciplining that lip, you would not believe. I truly felt that the inside of my mouth was a private area, caverns and folds of wet parting flesh, that letting anyone see into it was just as bad as spreading my legs.”
Adding to poor Eileen’s already crappy lot, she is trapped in a novel with all the touches of classic noir. Good intentions are scarce in this bleak New England town, while self-interest abounds.
Noir antiheroes need a screw loose. Eileen’s got that, too: Like someone straight out of “The Grifters,” her formative trauma — her mother’s early death, her father’s madness — has dashed Eileen’s chances of happy young adulthood and has twisted her into a stunted, mean-spirited, and deeply neurotic weirdo. She has a habit of stealing chocolates from the drug store. She keeps a bottle of sweet vermouth in her work locker. She skips showers in order to revel in her own stink. She is also a self-professed pervert.
“He had a way of sitting with one flank on the stool, one off, a foot hanging midair, a posture which presented his crotch as though on a platter for me to gaze at,” she rhapsodizes about a hunky corrections officer conveniently named Randy. “I spent many hours watching his biceps flick and pump as he turned each page of his comic book.”
Randy aside, there is little to hold Eileen’s interest in X-ville. But like every noir protagonist, she has a hidden agenda: She wants to flee to New York with her savings and her father’s car, an ancient Dodge with a broken exhaust system that forces her to keep all the windows open lest she suffocates.
From the start, the reader knows she got out. An elderly Eileen — a seasoned, sensual woman who scarcely resembles the twitchy, stinky 23-year-old of her past — narrates the hairy circumstances leading to her escape. At times, the reader wishes the old lady would stop foreshadowing so darn much, but this is a minor quibble with an otherwise taut, well-written, and completely engrossing novel.
One of its many delights is the noir’s obligatory mysterious dame. This role is fulfilled by the prison’s new director of education, Rebecca Saint John, a gorgeous, Harvard-educated redhead and thoroughly modern gal. “I’d never come face-to-face with anyone so beautiful before in my life,” Eileen recalls, wondering why such a smart, pretty lady has decided to spend her days with teenage criminals. Eileen soon becomes infatuated with Rebecca. Her desire to befriend her becomes so great that she goes to incredible lengths to win her admiration — lengths that shape the plot and culminate in a dynamite ending.
How will Eileen get out of X-ville? Can she leave unscathed? Why does she keep talking about her father’s gun? Though readers will thoroughly delight in the way the answers unfold, they will be left with one lingering question: What will Ottessa Moshfegh do next?
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press, 272 pp., $25.95
Eugenia Williamson is a writer living in Somerville.