Normalcy has become an anachronistic word, one reduced to a cynic’s muse or a satirist’s source of abuse. Nobody is “normal”, though that certainly does not stop people from trying to be that. The idea is that there is no hole deep enough to condemn the wayward – everyone can, if they want, find a way out. Everybody can outdo their misery. Even if they are twenty-four and working as a secretary in a boy’s prison, living with their abusive alcoholic father, and fantasising about their first sexual encounter as a coercive one.
Eileen Dunlop is living in the netherworld – X-ville, as she calls it – and she’s determined to escape. This is not a story about despair. We await her escape. Maybe normalcy is a farce, but that doesn’t keep us from hoping she makes it.
Eileen the outcaste
“I deplored silence. I deplored stillness,” says Eileen at the beginning of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel. “I hated almost everything. I was very unhappy and angry all the time.” Page after page, line after line, we watch with disbelief, with confusion, but mostly with anticipation as she describes the thoughts that go through her mind. The petals unfold to reveal the truth about the complicated protagonist.
Yet, Eileen is anything but a flower. According to her own description, she’s ugly, skinny, invisible. She’s everything a woman isn’t supposed to be. Still, her presence weighs like a rock throughout the story. A rock that despite everyone’s denial, including hers, does bleed.
At the heart of the story lies the question of guilt – a reckoning for those who are responsible for this filth. Eileen certainly takes on more than her fair share of that guilt, hating and deploring herself, her body – wishing she would disappear but also knowing that no one would really miss her. The overwhelming suffocation of her world leaves only her dark and twisted mind as a final resort.
Reading the book, we make several parallels to Kafka’s metamorphosised Gregor Samsa – the bug, the outcaste. Ridiculed by the prison staff, ignored by her crush Randy, and positively loathed by her father, Eileen scampers around the peripheries of their lives, terrified of being crushed under their foot but also unwilling to leave their side. Moshfegh’s detailed descriptions of her throwing up in the car seat or applying cheap make-up, gives Eileen an unearthly quality – one that makes us wonder whether she’s fit to survive in a world that only values beauty and transience.
Yet, throughout the harrowing descriptions of life in X-ville, the reader is assured of a better tomorrow for Eileen because the story is narrated by an older Eileen, aged 70. It is her reckoning with her former life. We know she survives, but the book holds us by our throats because until the very end, we are not aware of the costs that freedom comes at.
Even as we wait for the book to proceed, we find ourselves hooked to the startling descriptions that Eileen provides. She shows us the dingy bars and the lurid men, the squalid conditions of the prison, and her father’s pitiful paranoia. We know something is coming, and page after page we find ourselves worried sick as to what that is. And when Rebecca Saint John arrives as a prison psychologist from Harvard, we have a feeling everything is about to change.
Though not immediately.
Trying to move on
Eileen is a lot of things, a whole bag of contradictions. We find her hating her father and moments later providing for him. We find her jealous of the glamorous Rebecca but also validated by her presence. We see her pining after Randy but also accepting her knowledge of the fact that she doesn’t actually want him – just the idea of him. We’d expect her to be a heartless, cruel person, one who’s beaten by life to the point where she finds herself unable to look past the tip of her nose.
But that too, is not the case. Moshfegh leaves us rooting for a prison secretary who despite everything shows a kind of humanism that conveniently eludes everyone else, including the highly educated Rebecca.
In the deep pelagic sadness of her life, one that she’s come to accept despite her assurances that she’s not stagnating, Eileen is looking for a means, a catalyst. Something that would truly push her over the edge, and beyond. She gets precisely that when a young parricide, Leonard Polk, is brought to prison.
Moshfegh delivers on her promise – as the causes for Polk’s crime become known, Eileen’s strength and endurance are tested to the limits. What we have is a vivid and gruesome picture of the human being, all that they’re capable of doing, and the extent of their awareness of their crimes.
If getting out of X-ville was hard, living all by herself in shady apartments in New York City was harder. Years of struggle and heartbreak (yes, she finally emerges from her shell) lead her from one place to another, until she arrives finally at the point where she can look back on her yesteryears and tell the story in a way that lacks bitterness, lacks anger, only has a quiet resignation.
The older Eileen tells us that she has found an oasis of peace at long last. She has a beautiful home, a beautiful bed, a beautiful life, one that she inhabits all by herself. She tells us she’s at peace. Reading those words, the reader will find themselves flipping back through the pages wondering how in the world does she go from being all that she is in the book to what she claims she has become. Did she really find peace? we ask ourselves. Or is she merely consoling us, and herself? I’m inclined to believe her. I know a lot of readers will feel the same.
Normalcy may not be anachronistic so much as it is an anomaly. An achievable one at that.