By Carly Taylor
It’s been said before, and I’ll say it again: When reading Ottessa Moshfegh, one gets the distinct impression that she’s a writer capable of anything. You can’t help but trust her skills completely. A former Stanford Stegner Fellow, she’s confidently penned three novels, a short story collection and a novella since 2014, all of which showcase her incredible imagination and undeniably fresh voice. Her fiction has proved both highly literary and highly readable: Her debut novel “Eileen” (2015) was awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, while her second novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” (2018) was a New York Times Bestseller. Moshfegh is undoubtedly one of the most interesting voices in contemporary American fiction, and her latest novel, “Death in Her Hands” (2020), retains the heart of what makes her prose magical, while exploring an entirely new kind of story for the writer — a mystery. (Minor spoilers ahead.)
Moshfegh’s protagonists tend to be chronically unhappy, voluntarily outcast women who nonetheless maintain a naive, almost absurd, optimism about an impending change in their situation. She enjoys writing characters who are remarkably, sometimes hilariously, unlikable; however, Vesta, the protagonist of Moshfegh’s latest novel “Death in Her Hands,” is more immediately endearing. Sure, she’s a kooky 72-year-old who lives alone with her dog and an urn of her husband’s ashes, and sure, she feels superior to the poor, uneducated whites that populate her rural town of Levant. But in the book’s first chapter, we get the impression that she’s lived honestly and is happy with her simple way of life, taking her dog Charlie on walks through the woods, working in her garden, reading books and paddling a rowboat around her lake.
In the opening of the novel, Vesta finds a vague and mysterious note referring to the murder of a girl named Magda, and as she becomes increasingly invested in solving this mystery, the peace and contentment in her life disintegrate. The problem is, Vesta has no real clues to go on — she knows nothing of the victim other than her name, and she has no suspects, other than whoever wrote the note. So, she does what we all might have done as children in this situation — she invents an identity for Magda and populates the narrative of her life with many different male suspects. Like Sherlock Holmes turned up to 11, Vesta sets out to solve the mystery purely through work of the mind.
The book is essentially an interior monologue, since Vesta rarely speaks to anyone but her dog Charlie. She has a rich imagination, uninhibited except by the nagging voice of her late husband, and it’s a delight to watch her take this strange name Magda and weave an entire story out of it. In this way, though this book is a mystery itself, it’s also a book about writing a mystery. This self-reflexive postmodern flair is present, but it’s not flashy or cheesy — it instead feels original and insightful.
When the characters Vesta invented start actually appearing in her world, the story tightens its grip on us. We realize what an unreliable narrator Vesta is, and it’s not just for the sake of shrouding the story in an extra layer of mystery. In the end, we don’t really care what is “real” and what is “imagined” — in seeing Vesta’s world through her eyes, we come to understand the power that the stories we tell ourselves have in shaping our lived reality. We see this story Vesta has created not just as something to keep her busy and entertained, but as a reflection of her own life struggles and regrets.
Throughout the book, she is both mourning her recently deceased husband and trying to rid herself of his oppressive influence. He was a successful academic who dismissed all her thoughts and feelings that didn’t map onto his so-called logical worldview. In this, the novel masterfully explores a type of regret often overlooked in fiction — the regret of an old woman who married young and stayed faithful to a man who never loved her as much as she deserved. Though she was always suspicious that Walter was cheating on her with his young, always female research assistants, after he died, she found a list of their names and their prized qualities, which affirmed her suspicions, unleashing a rage which she had nowhere to put. Vesta fights desperately to get his voice out of her “mindspace,” since it’s a voice that is always telling her to doubt her anxieties and her emotions rather than listen to them — and to solve this mystery, she will need above all to listen to herself.
“Death in Her Hands,” though a mystery on the surface, is also a meditation on facing death in its many forms — the death of a stranger, the death of a loved one, the death of an unborn fetus, one’s own impending death. It asks ceaselessly what responsibility the living have to the dead, and vice versa. Yet for a book so steeped in death, Moshfegh’s narrator is undeniably in love with life, firmly in its grip — she calls death “fragile” and “delicate,” while life is “robust” and “persistent”: “Life took so much to ruin. One had to beat it out of the body. Even just the slightest seed of life, a fertilized egg, took payment, an expert, a machine, and an industrial vacuum, I’d heard.”
For me, the books’ most beautiful moments are when Vesta allows us to see the world at its most lively, as though we are children again. Her instinct for employing imagination rather than seeking out facts infuses the whole book with this youthful imaginative energy. She doesn’t even own a house phone, so she drives to her local library to do research on the Internet, at AskJeeves.com. As she searches “Is Magda dead,” we see the naivety and wonder with which she approaches the Internet, something we all take for granted now. She calls the computer “an oracle, a guiding force”: “I didn’t have the answers, but I had the right questions, I believed.”
And as they are in all of her books, Moshfegh’s narrator in “Death in Her Hands” remains beautifully open and attuned to those strange moments of joy that strike us out of nowhere. It’s perhaps an echo of the joy we felt as children, without thinking we needed a reason to feel it. Vesta, after being pulled over by a policeman who she is convinced is a dark agent of evil named Ghod, is struck by one of these moments:
“Sitting there in the car, I had a moment of daydream staring into the bright white sunshine. It was like I was back in Monlith driving home from the shopping center, and I was like a little kid for a few seconds, excited for no reason, my mind emptied, waiting at a red light, with no place to go but to go on living and enjoying myself. It was an odd moment to get lost—in the face of evil and conspiracy. But for some reason, I felt energized, peaceful, and young.”
This ecstasy is something Walter’s approach to life left him incapable of, and until his death, Vesta too believed herself incapable of it. But not anymore. In this story, the world is always surprising Vesta, and in turn, she is always surprising herself.
“Death in Her Hands” is most concerned with mortality and solitude, and what we can do in the face of these forces: principally, tell stories. In that, it’s the perfect book to read and meditate on during the COVID-19 age, where isolation is affecting us all, and death is affecting increasingly many of us. Still, we might find ourselves experiencing joy of Vesta’s genre at various moments, an optimistic energy that lives on in spite of everything, “in the face of evil and conspiracy.” No matter where the world goes from here, I’m thrilled to be living on it with Ottessa Moshfegh, whose stories have and will continue to shock and delight us, all while shedding light on the most challenging and often unsightly aspects of what it means to be human.
Contact Carly Taylor at carly505 ‘at’ stanford.edu.