Under Her Buttons

Joanna Biggs

  • Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
    Cape, 260 pp, £16.99, March 2016, ISBN 978 0 224 10255 1

Eileen is 24, all ribs, shoulders and hips with ‘lemon-sized’ breasts and nipples ‘like thorns’. She still has acne scars across her cheeks. She wears thick tights and skirts that pass her knees and buttons everything else up to the neck. Eileen reads National Geographic and lives with her father, an ex-cop and a drunk who is at least ‘easy to distract and soothe’: she just hands him a bottle of gin and leaves the room. ‘I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected,’ Eileen, now in her seventies, says of herself as she was in 1964, ‘but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s.’ But who did she want to kill? She used to look up at the icicles hanging by the front door of her New England home and see her own death: ‘I imagined one plummeting through the hollow of my collarbone and stabbing me straight through the heart. Or, had I tilted my head back, perhaps it would have soared down my throat, scraping the vacuous centre of my body – I liked to picture these things – and followed through to my guts, finally parting my nether regions like a glass dagger.’

One of the strange truths about being a young woman is that while everyone is supposed to want to look at you, few listen to you. (Eileen knows, under her buttons, that they’ll listen to you still less if you refuse to be looked at.) It’s a peculiar sort of trap – and in Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction there are better or worse entrapments, but there is no not being trapped. The divorcée in her short story ‘Bettering Myself’, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize, keeps half her life – ‘clothes, books, unopened mail, ashtrays’ – trapped between the bed and the wall. The protagonist of her first novel, McGlue (2014), is locked up for the murder of his best friend, but can’t admit or deny the crime because he can’t remember it. The narrator of Eileen, her second, is stuck more ordinarily in the dull hometown she gives the everyplace pseudonym of X-ville. Getting trapped every so often might be the price of being alive: the question is how do we escape? ‘My writing lets people scrape up against their own depravity,’ Moshfegh, who was born in Boston in 1981 to a Croatian mother and an Iranian father, told Vice, ‘but at the same time it’s very refined – the depth of it hides behind its sophistication. It’s like seeing Kate Moss take a shit. People love that kind of stuff.’

Eileen’s mother died when she was 21, and so her father got her a job as a secretary in a juvenile detention centre for teenage boys. She watches the clock, drinks cups of evaporated milk and plans her escape to New York City when she isn’t imagining her ‘soured and flat and cliquish’ middle-aged female colleagues being ‘homosexual for each other’. Such imaginings are how she survives. When one of the guards tells a boy to lick a speck of dirt from the floor tiles, she works on blanking out her features into a ‘death mask’. The boys are frightening and their mothers, visiting once a week, hardly less so: ‘I fashioned meaningless surveys and handed out the mimeographed forms on clipboards to the most antsy of the mothers. I thought having to fill them out would give the women a sense of importance, create the illusion that their lives and opinions were worthy of respect and curiosity.’ Eileen thinks they might want to be anonymous but ‘none of them did. They’d all write their names on these forms much more legibly than in the visitors’ ledger, and answered so ingenuously, it broke my heart.’ Being a young woman was a trap, being older isn’t an improvement. The Bell Jar, The Feminine Mystique and The Group were published in 1963; for Eileen, in the last week of 1964, ‘the life of a woman seemed utterly detestable … There was nothing I wanted less back then than to be somebody’s mother, somebody’s wife.’ Sex, not that she’s had it, not that she would willingly remove her ‘thick cotton underpants and my mother’s old strangulating girdle’, is better imagined as rape: ‘I’d always believed my first time would be by force. Of course I hoped to be raped by only the most soulful, gentle, handsome of men, somebody who was secretly in love with me.’ Eileen happens to be secretly in love with one of the guards, Randy, and although she can’t get him to look at her, when he walks past, she can catch his scent: ‘tart like the ocean, brawny, warm’.

For the first part of the novel, we are deep in Eileen’s thoughts. She keeps returning to the same themes: her talents as a shoplifter; her obsessive, wordless, doormat love for Randy; her disgust at her scrawny body which nevertheless sways monstrously as she moves down the hall; her longing for something, anything to take her away (‘People died all the time. Why couldn’t I?’); her father’s nastiness and his drinking; her mother’s death; her eating and purging and self-pity. Sometimes the repetition is suffocating, sometimes it just feels repetitious, and the depressive’s dark poetry begins to pall as yet another beautiful way to die is imagined: ‘I warmed my thawing fingers, poured myself more whisky, pictured the moon and stars swirling as they would through the windshield if I’d sped off the side of that cliff and down onto the rocks earlier that evening, the glittering of broken glass over the frozen snow, the black ocean.’ Eileen begins as a novel of character and turns just in time into a story with a plot; Moshfegh told the LA Times that she wanted the reader to be close to giving up: ‘If I had to write the book over again,’ she teased, ‘I’d have her freeing all the kids from the prison, strutting around naked in a fur coat in X-ville.’ As it was, she chose to ‘disguise the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package’. In McGlue, Moshfegh gets us out of the eponymous character’s head – ‘all my mind does now is it spins around something I’d have sooner forgotten,’ McGlue says – by executing him; in Eileen, plot arrives in the form of a tall redheaded woman called Rebecca Saint John whose unexplained, shining presence Eileen recognises as ‘my ticket to a new life’.

Rebecca – not all that different from Du Maurier’s Rebecca – has arrived from Harvard to set up an educational programme for the lost boys at the detention centre. She has rosebud lips, strong cheekbones, eyes as blue as mouthwash, and when she smokes, it’s as if she’s ‘stepping into a warm bath’. Eileen has a friend for the first time. ‘What is that old saying? A friend is someone who helps you hide the body?’ Rebecca, clean and scented, dresses in mohair and fur and takes Eileen for a cocktail at the joint where Eileen’s father used to get drunk before he stopped leaving the house. Sitting alongside her, Eileen goes from unseen to seen, first by the men in the bar and then by Rebecca herself, who turns to her as she leaves and says: ‘You remind me of a Dutch painting. You have a strange face. Uncommon. Plain, but fascinating. It has a beautiful turbulence hidden in it. I love it. I bet you have brilliant dreams. I bet you dream of other worlds.’ The moment is more like the breaking of a spell, the springing open of a mousetrap, than a lesson learned: Eileen had said at the beginning that she was Joan of Arc born into the wrong life, and here’s her confirmation. Being seen – that it was by a friend rather than a lover doesn’t seem to matter – brings power with it. (Well, that and the gun Eileen’s father conveniently gives her.) Eileen can now see her old habits of life differently:

Those people with perfect houses are simply obsessed with death. A house that is so well-maintained, furnished with good-looking furniture of high quality, decorated tastefully, everything in its place, becomes a living tomb. People truly engaged in life have messy houses. I knew this implicitly at age 24. Of course at 24 I was also obsessed with death. I had tried to distract myself from my terror not through housekeeping, like the housewives of X-ville, but through my bizarre eating, compulsive habits, tireless ambivalence, Randy and so forth. I hadn’t realised this until sitting at Rebecca’s kitchen table; watching her crack open a peanut, lick her fingers: I would die one day, but not yet. There I was.

Simone de Beauvoir saw housework as the Sisyphean task par excellence: the repetition was an effective way of not living, of simply keeping time until death. But if you’re trapped, what else is there to do but watch the clock? Moshfegh’s fine, clear, short sentences carry complex thought and emotional revelation effortlessly: that repetition of ‘24’, that rhythm falling gently into threes, that empathetic leap from the obsessive housewives of X-ville to her own compulsions, that final sentence that turns self-obsession into self-confidence. And at last Eileen doesn’t imagine another gorgeous death. She allows herself a different, more grown-up thought: death will come soon enough and indeed she might not want it to come quite yet. She might have the courage to see how things will turn out. The beautiful trigger has wrought a permanent change.

Rebecca has her own obsessions. Leonard Polk, a famous case at the detention centre, murdered his father in his sleep, and no one but Rebecca seems interested in asking him why. ‘Can you imagine killing your own father?’ she asks Eileen as she steals Polk’s file from the office. ‘It’s a story for the ages, of course. Kill your father, sleep with your mother. The male instinct can be terribly predictable.’ If the female instinct isn’t predictable, it is no less deadly, no less clouded, no less interested in killing its way out of a trap. Polk languishes in solitary until Rebecca plucks him out – as she did Eileen – to hear his side of the story: ‘I don’t believe in good and bad,’ she says. ‘No child deserves that kind of punishment.’ Retribution, she argues, is even better than punishment. ‘I’m the first to care,’ Rebecca says. Eileen picks up her gun, ‘feeling the strange heat through the grip’, and is ‘struck with an idea’.

You can leave your family more or less violently, more or less permanently, but the point of a Bildungsroman, or the Freudian family romance even, is that you leave somehow. From fifty years’ distance, the way Eileen left seems to her pathetic, romantic, sad, misguided (‘Idealism without consequences is the pathetic dream of every spoiled brat, I suppose,’ she now says of Rebecca) – but it happened. Closing the door of her family home for the last time, ‘as I turned to face the yard, one of those icicles cracked and struck me on the cheek, slicing like a thin blade from my eye to my jaw. It didn’t hurt.’