Late in Death In Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel, the narrator recalls an incident with her dog, Charlie. One day she let Charlie loose in a park, where the pet soon shoved its face and rolled around in what the narrator at first thought was a dead animal, but which turned out to be shit. “I stood back watching him in this insanity, feces and saliva mixing. He gagged and gagged. But he was so happy.” It’s a particularly Moshfeghian scene—revolting and a little funny while suggesting a complex truth. Here, it’s less about man’s best friend than man himself: Just because something is repellent, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not enjoyable. The repulsion is, in fact, often the allure.
In her 2015 debut novel, Eileen, Moshfegh used the tropes of a noir potboiler to animate her portrait of an angry, lonely young woman. There was a femme fatale, a gun, a kidnapping, but what was most memorable about the novel was the protagonist herself. Obsessed with the morbid and the grotesque—she keeps a dead mouse in her car, fantasizes about being raped, and goes into painstaking detail regarding her complicated, violent bowel movements—Eileen felt like a different kind of “unlikable” female character. Within the book’s reception was the sense of an author, at long last, articulating the kinds of pitch-dark thoughts and foul habits that some women have but often keep to themselves. Moshfegh went far beyond Bridesmaids-era assertions that “girls are gross too.” Rather, she spoke to misogyny, shame, and the pristine face that women have long felt they must present to the world.
With her third novel, Moshfegh has crafted another macabre, isolated female protagonist, and again uses genre—this time a murder-mystery—to set a character study into motion. Death In Her Hands begins with the elderly widowed narrator, Vesta Gul, finding a note while out on a walk with Charlie in the woods near her remote cabin home: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Except there is no body, or any evidence of there having been one. But no matter. No sooner is Vesta back home from her walk than she convinces herself that this is a case in need of solving and she is the one to solve it.
Death In Her Hands will not satisfy as a strict mystery, in as much as the author does not appear concerned with keeping its secrets concealed for the vast majority of the book. Moshfegh does not so much drop clues as plant signposts, as subtle as blood-red Burma-Shave billboards spread out along the novel’s plotline. Imagine a film’s killer, as yet unrevealed to the other characters, turning to the camera and winking, raising an exaggerated finger to his lips. “If there was anything I’d learned from Agatha Christie, it was that oftentimes the guilty party is lurking just underneath one’s nose,” Vesta says at one point.
As ever, Moshfegh is recursive in her exposition, the mode in which the writer seems most comfortable. Each time Vesta returns to an idea, her theories become firmer in her mind and more extreme. It makes for a dynamic relationship with the reader—that of listening to a wide-eyed storyteller who embellishes every chance she gets, her language growing more and more graphic, seemingly outside of her control. “There were probably worms and maggots crawling up her lips and into her mouth. How could she talk at all with a mouth full of stuff like that?” Vesta wonders of the missing victim. The narrator has no internet, no phone, no friends, and is disdainful of the area’s residents, especially—like many of Moshfegh’s characters—fat people. Even when Vesta relates the admittedly mundane details of her solitary life—talking to her dog, eating stale bagels, reading books she doesn’t particularly like—her voice is enlivened. She self-aggrandizes while insisting she’s “just a little old lady.”
No wonder Vesta is so taken with Magda, who she envisions as a bold, striking 19-year-old immigrant who came to the U.S. to work for the summer but got into trouble. The girl is both a direct reflection of the narrator and a shimmering photo negative. Like Vesta, Magda is Eastern European, solitary, and has a somewhat unusual name; unlike her, the young woman is tough, sexy, and a little cruel. Vesta describes herself as having been dutiful and acquiescent to her patronizing academic of a husband, Walter, for their entire life together.
Shame is an animating force in much of Moshfegh’s work, and here she lets it rip as she imagines Vesta imagining Magda and the debased conditions of her life—holing up in a grimy basement, shitting in a bucket, etc. Under the guise of solving a murder, Vesta indulges in her penchant for the obscene, painting increasingly sordid circumstances. If this sounds like the author herself—whose proclivity for luxuriating in the disgusting has become something of a signature—that’s no accident. As the tension of the central mystery ebbs, the book becomes less a whodunit than a meditation on the act of creation itself and just what compels people to invent. It’s telling that when Vesta uses a computer at the local library to research how to solve a mystery, she instead finds tips on how to write one.
Here Moshfegh’s propensity to toy with absurdity occasionally tips over into outright ridiculousness and full-on cheese. Vesta, whose surname is mispronounced by the townspeople as “gool,” is ghoulish. In one scene, she writes out “ghoul” and her sloppy handwriting makes it “ghod.” Vesta, the entity creating an entire life from a piece of paper, is god. Black humor has been a hallmark of Moshfegh’s writing since her first publication, the incredible 2014 novella McGlue, and here it’s simultaneously at its silliest and most complex, asking the reader to laugh at a lonely old woman who is possibly losing her mind. (In the computer scene, she asks Jeeves how to solve a murder.)
What was so remarkable about Moshfegh’s 2018 novel, My Year Of Rest And Relaxation, was how entertaining it was despite its protagonist spending so much time sleeping, the novel relying, to a great extent, on the habitual. It was an impressive sleight of hand. In Death In Her Hands, the writing swirls and snaps, growing dizzying as Vesta’s paranoia churns faster and faster. But despite the fast pace of the prose and Moshfegh’s expert calibration of her protagonist’s mental state, one can hear the wheels grinding. Death In Her Hands was written before Rest And Relaxation, and it’s indeed a more direct descendant of Eileen: Vesta is who Eileen might have become had she not left her crummy hometown and found a different life for herself. Along with the narrator of Rest And Relaxation, they’re reclusive women trying to fix what ails them, albeit in counterintuitive ways. Such thematic repetition makes for a cohesive body of work, but in Death, Moshfegh’s most distinctive tendencies have begun to feel reflexive. As Vesta puts it, “If you know how the story ends, why even begin?”