Ottessa Moshfegh’s characters don’t understand why you’re interested in them and frankly, they don’t care. They aren’t going to go out of their way to make you feel more comfortable. They didn’t ask you to peer into their humdrum little lives — you’re the one who picked up the book, and you’re free to put it down if you’re turned off by their anxiety, their crude habits and their jaundiced way of looking at the world.
From her bracing debut novel, “Eileen,” to her breakout 2018 hit, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” Moshfegh has perfected an enervating, claustrophobic style in which complex anti-heroines seek escape through fantasy or delusion. Her latest novel, “Death in Her Hands” (out June 23), continues in this vein, depositing a recognizable, Moshfegh-ian protagonist into a twisting, satirical murder mystery.
Vesta Gul is an elderly widow who recently moved to Levant, a small town in rural New England. She lives as a recluse, motivated partly by scorn for her neighbors, who she views as primitive, and partly by a nagging fear that borders on paranoia. She is suspicious of everyone, even the local police: “Standing there in the doorway with their hands on their hips, as if I were some kind of threat to them. They had come to my cabin to intimidate me, I thought, and thus to indoctrinate me...” She and her dog, Charlie, spend their days wandering through the birch woods that border her property, doing their best to avoid contact with the outside world.
Until one day, when she finds a note on the trail: “Her name was Magda,” it reads. “Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” Except, there is no body and no evidence of foul play. Vesta is disturbed by the cryptic note, but it also excites her. “We’ve had quite the morning, haven’t we?” she asks Charlie. “A little horror story. Gets the blood flowing, right?” Soon, Vesta is plunging headlong into an investigation of Magda’s supposed murder.
But when she fails to turn up any leads by Asking Jeeves “Is Magda dead?” on the computer at the local library, she begins to treat the note less like a clue and more like a writing prompt. A subsequent web search leads her to a questionnaire intended to help aspiring mystery writers develop their characters. “Mystery was an artless genre,” Vesta says, “Not that the more literary novels I had borrowed from the library seemed any more inspired.”
Nevertheless, she begins to fill out the form in the hopes of better understanding Magda, imagining her family situation, her favorite foods and her hobbies. This exercise is cathartic for Vesta: “Magda felt real. She had become important to me. We had bonded. I missed her even… I wished that she could have seen me so she’d appreciate everything I was doing for her, bringing her back to life in this way, investigating her murder, giving her a voice.”
Vesta’s investigation quickly becomes an obsession. As she hunts for answers, her grip on reality becomes more tenuous. She begins confusing her invented details for facts and even incorporates parts of her own life — such as her fraught relationship with her late husband, Walter — into Magda’s narrative.
It’s hard not to read this as a parody of Moshfegh’s own process — she infamously claimed to have used Alan Watt’s writing guide, “The 90-Day Novel,” as a template for “Eileen.” Indeed, the final question on Vesta’s questionnaire — “Will readers like or dislike this character?” — is a sly wink at the recurring critique her writing receives. Moshfegh maintains that this question misses the point. Her stories put readers inside the heads of her characters. How many of us are at our most likeable, our most presentable, inside our own heads? The tension between the feeling that we must present a façade of normality for the sake of others and our anxiety that we are failing, and that people can see right through our charade, is key to Moshfegh’s fiction.
“Death in Her Hands” feels like a spiritual sequel to “Eileen.” Vesta and Eileen have a lot in common: their biting, judgmental assessments of those around them; the overbearing men in their lives; the longing fantasies that provide a respite from their bleak existences. What separates the two, however, is that Eileen always seemed to be reaching out despite the emotional wall she built around herself. She wanted to make a connection but believed she wasn’t worthy of it. On some level, Vesta is also desperate to connect with someone but is terrified of doing so. Only an imagined figure can safely provide her the comfort she needs.
Will readers like Vesta? She doesn’t make it easy. But Moshfegh isn’t asking you to try, either. For those who look to literature for something more than just entertainment, “Death in Her Hands” invites you to experience the world through the eyes of a wounded, lonely old crank and wonder how she got that way. If it were comfortable, it wouldn’t be the truth.