It’s a bold statement these days to have a ‘favourite author’. I am not a child who needs to form an identity based on the colours and foods I like, nor a teenager seeking to find my place by putting a stake in the ground with the bands and films I love. But for quite some time, I have had a tentative urge to call Ottessa Moshfegh my favourite author, following my desire to talk endlessly about her work, to recommend it to anyone regardless of their tastes, reading habits or desire to accept a recommendation. So to say that I was excited for Death In Her Hands is something of an understatement. And I can confidently state that this book has cemented my understated fandom, although not for the reasons I expected.
For fellow fans of Moshfegh’s previous work, there’s a lot of familiarity here. As I, among many, have breathlessly stated many times, she has a striking ability to fill absences with intention, and with plot. Just as much of ‘the action’ of My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes place while the unnamed protagonist is asleep or unconscious, until the very end of the novel, the only action for much of Death in her Hands is that an elderly woman eats and drinks alone with her dog, goes for a drive, goes for a walk, goes to the library, goes to the shop. All of the plot that drives us forward takes place in her head. This is parallel to Eileen, too, in which we are promised a crime, only to spend three quarters of the novel on a psychological analysis of our protagonist, the findings of which are quite unrelated to the ultimate crime itself.
That, too, is the other familiarity you’ll find in this if you’ve read Moshfegh’s other work. She masters a certain type of unreliable intimacy, usually cemented by disgust, the grotesque. She positions us close enough to our narrators that we feel they have truly ‘let us in’. Why would we question the motives of someone bringing us so close that we experience their bad habits through a magnified mirror; the vivid vulgarity of smells and textures that come with an intense close-up view.
“I used my fingers to pick apart the cold, coagulated chicken, not caring that the gelatinous fat was clinging to my lips and gumming up my teeth.”
We are on the inside. We are at once in the narrator’s mind—in this case, Vesta, the novel’s 72-year-old narrator, living alone in a cabin in the woods—yet somehow unable to believe a word we are told from this proximity. It is a unique kind of narration that is at once honest and completely unbelievable. Most of the characters we encounter are not included for their actions or interactions with the narrator, but for how Vesta, our protagonist and narrator, inserts them into her own assessment of the situation—most obviously when it comes to Magda, the alleged dead body at the heart of this mystery. We are examining, constantly looking for a truth to arise, although what we are given is Vesta’s truth as she sees it. It is as satisfying as it is inevitable. And it’s that that reminds me that you don’t read Moshfegh for the truth, but the paths you’re taken down on the way to reaching it. The truth will always come, although not always how we expect it to.
Moshfegh is the queen of the space of isolation—a topic some readers may find too close to home in this stifling time of solitary uncertainty. But one cannot deny the mastery Moshfegh has for presenting us with internal monologues; that which is left when the trappings of the everyday are gone. Through imagined conversations with the responseless radio host Pastor Jimmy and her faithful companion dog Charlie, the imagined retorts built from the memories of her deceased husband, Walter, we are a significant chunk of the novel through before we engage a character who broaches on Vesta in a physical space, and not just in her mind, or her ‘mindspace’, as she calls it. A sacred space, for someone who deals in solitude with the expert handling that Moshfegh offers. (Perhaps I read too much into novels, but as I read this I wondered if Moshfegh is just a lonely person. Then I read this article she wrote about life in the Covid19 lockdown - and was relieved to find that this is very much not the case.)
Much like with Eileen, those seeking a tidy whodunnit, a crime thriller, will likely be disappointed. The novel opens with a declaration that seems to set up the events that follow as a simple murder mystery; nothing more, nothing less.
“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”
Like any reader, I went in looking to solve the mystery, despite knowing Moshfegh’s modus operandi, knowing that is surely not all I could be for. I looked for the clues. Perhaps this time might be different, I thought. And I fell right into her trap.
I must admit that the novel didn’t grip me from a plot perspective, beyond the first half. I laughed out loud as I read the following lines from chapter five:
“I was often tempted to abandon books if they flailed along too slowly. The muddled middle, a reviewer had called it one day on the radio.”
Because although it was moving slowly, what kept me turning pages at a rapid speed in the second half was from a craft perspective.
It says more about me than her that I wanted more of the iconic millennial malaise of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or the small town stakes of Eileen, and was instead offered something that at times I wondered if it was too rich for my palette. Moshfegh has perfected what she does, and the curse of becoming a novelist people revere is that they think they understand you. Armed with more knowledge than Vesta, we are equipped with the tools of context for the task of solving the mystery we have opened up as readers—what’s going on in this novel. But then even this seems knowing, intentional.
Because wrapped up in this mystery is a meditation on art, on creation, on specifically ‘creating a novel’. It is wrapped in the guise of a mystery, perfectly exemplifying how we as readers are guided only by what the writer gives us, a gift from their mind. We are passive and wandering down fruitless paths, accepting red herrings like gifts, and looking for the meaning in everything from a purchased object, to the layers of a name. We do exactly what Vesta does with the clues offered to us.
“Things might be theoretical, that was true. I may be imagining it all, but it still hurt.”
I often think about how writers, once they have run out of life to draw from, inevitably turn to writing about the only thing they have left: the very act of writing. But for Moshfegh, this is not a last resort. It is another literary gift, and now begins my long wait for the next one.
Death in Her Hands
By Ottessa Moshfegh
272 pages. 2020.