About a third of the way into Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands, the protagonist, Vesta Gul, walks into a library, fires up a web browser and clicks on a page entitled TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS. The rules she scrolls past – ‘create a three-dimensional world’, offer ‘a clear and convincing motive’, ‘try to surprise the reader at the end, but always play fair’ – could be a list of everything that was deliberately missing from Moshfegh’s previous books, which are populated by flat, chronically miserable characters who repeat the same self-defeating and often viscerally revolting actions over and over again, and feature endings that seem determined to mock and disappoint.
‘A writer needs some direction,’ Vesta tells herself in an extended dialogue with the mystery-writing advice page,
some wisdom and knowledge about the mystery she is writing. Or else she is just twiddling her thumbs, scribbling things down to memorialise her mindspace. It seemed to me that doing so was actually rather humiliating; a sign of arrogance and self-conceit. But I supposed it was indeed the job of the writer to belittle the miracles of this Earth, to separate one question out of the infinite mystery of life and answer it in some snivelling way.
Death in Her Hands, like all Moshfegh’s novels, is a mystery, as well as a portrait of a broken mind. But it’s also a hall of mirrors in which every image or event might be real, or a warped reflection of the real, or a reflection of a reflection of the real; and all of it may or may not refer, however obliquely, to the world outside the novel, a world in which its author is an acclaimed creator of warped realities. It recalls all the conventions of the genre only to subvert them.
The first and most artistically successful of her previous books, McGlue, was published in 2014. It’s a gritty period piece – a novella rather than a novel – narrated by a drunken sailor imprisoned for the murder of his friend. We’re meant to despise McGlue: he’s racist and homophobic and revels in the violence and filth of life at sea and of a richly imagined mid-19th-century New York. When a ‘nice little fag’ passes an orange to him in the brig, McGlue enjoys its rotten sourness, ‘puking fruit into a bucket already half full of blackie piss and shit’. But gradually we become aware of McGlue’s humanity: his grim past (abusive mother, weak father), the pain he obliterates with alcohol, his appreciation for the stink and decay of real life. Eventually he excavates from memory the events of the night of the murder.
Moshfegh’s first full novel, Eileen, is narrated by a morbid young woman living in a terrible small town with her father, a cruel, alcoholic ex-cop. Possible deliverance arrives in the form of a mysterious woman, Rebecca, a crypto-ingénue who seems parachuted in from a 1950s detective movie. Eileen’s musings – she longs for her own death, fantasises about being raped and always lets us know when she’s puking or taking a shit – make her as eye-rollingly immature as any glowering high school goth. Very little happens: all the trappings of literary noir are displayed only to be snatched away. Moshfegh’s next novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, doubled down on this reader-hostile approach, giving us a rich, vain, depressive addict determined to spend a year in debased isolation in her apartment in fin-de-siècle Y2K New York. This unnamed narrator has an equally disagreeable best friend, Reva, whom she relentlessly mocks and abuses; sometimes Reva comes over and they exchange a few pages of obnoxious dialogue. The narrator lists all the drugs she’s taking, blacks out, does stuff she can’t remember, demands booty calls from her sadistic married boyfriend, tells lies, vomits, reminds us how thin and sexy she is. This routine is interrupted by occasional visits to a preposterously incompetent therapist, who offers comic relief, and by a long scene at Reva’s mother’s funeral, where the narrator recalls, in an unexpectedly affecting flashback, her unhappy upbringing (abusive mother, weak father). The book concludes with perhaps the most casually manipulative and exploitative ending I’ve ever read.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation made me wonder whether Moshfegh the novelist – as opposed to Moshfegh the short-story writer, whose little dyspeptic jolts are sharp and entertaining – was nothing more than a high-functioning literary troll. You almost feel her perched on your shoulder as you read, jeering at you for wanting to enjoy fiction. ‘Oh, do you want your characters to be likeable? Do you want a story? Are you bored? Do you want some momentum?’ The ending lands as a sarcastic sop to bourgeois sensibilities, as though generated purely for the book groups on whose patronage the publishing world is said to depend. Moshfegh has a reputation as an experimental novelist, but the narrative slackness of these books isn’t like that of David Markson’s novels, for instance, which have the minimalist, unnerving rhythm of a needle trapped in the final groove of a record. Their dark outlook isn’t like that of Thomas Bernhard, whose cynicism is driven by a kind of grim joy, nor do they have the animated interiority of Lynne Tillman or Lydia Davis, whose currents of thought sweep up the reader and carry them along. Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation are exercises in psychological realism, but with most of the pleasures removed.
Death in Her Hands is different. All the Moshfeghian noirish gestures are there, but this time they have a purpose. The novel opens with Vesta Gul out for a walk near the disused lakeside Girl Scouts’ camp she has bought and retreated to in the wake of her husband’s death. She discovers, held fast to the forest path by stones, a handwritten note that reads: ‘Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’ But there’s no body, and no other evidence of a crime.
Vesta sets out to discover who wrote the note, who Magda is, or was, and who killed her. The townspeople of Levant, her adopted home, are of little help: to them, Vesta’s just the weird lady at the Girl Scout camp. (At least, we think they see her that way – most of Vesta’s interactions with townspeople occur only in her imagination, and the further we penetrate into the novel, the less trust we have in what ‘really’ happens.) Nobody has heard of the victim. With so little to go on, Vesta begins to speculate: perhaps Magda was ‘a character with substance, a mysterious past. Exotic, even.’ Perhaps she was a Belarusian immigrant, in flight from a difficult family. Perhaps she rented a basement apartment from a woman called Shirley, and befriended Shirley’s son, Blake – the boy who left the note on the path. Maybe her body has been dumped on the island in the lake. Armed with outdated information from a computer literacy class and with too much time on her hands, Vesta learns just enough to fuel her increasingly fanciful narrative, which she documents on a printed-out questionnaire from the mystery advice website. A slip of her pen – she is trying to describe the killer as a ghoul – creates a new character, Ghod, who is soon embodied by a traffic cop who pulls her over for driving erratically.
As Vesta’s fantasy becomes increasingly real to her, the lines between memory and imagination begin to blur. Meanwhile, warm recollections of her late husband give way to more disturbing ones. ‘I thought of Walter, his kind hands calloused only on the middle finger where he held a pen,’ she writes. A few lines later: ‘He once beat a rat to death with a hammer.’ At first presented as a kindly, good-humoured professor (an epistemologist), Walter is revealed to have been a belittling, controlling monster; eventually Vesta unceremoniously dumps his ashes into the lake, ‘to be rid of Walter at last’. Other lines also blur. A mysterious woman at the library drops a book that turns out to contain the collected poems of William Blake. Coincidence? In the bathroom, Vesta meets a woman she is convinced must be the Shirley of her narrative. We assume this is part of the fantasy. But when the ‘real’ Shirley refers to her own ‘real’ son as Blake, our understanding is shaken. Is her son ‘really’ called Blake, which would imply that Vesta met the boy before but forgot? Or is the entire narrative beginning to flex under the weight of her delusion? Later, while searching for her missing dog, Vesta wanders into a neighbour’s house where she meets a woman preparing for a morbid cocktail party, in commemoration of her own impending death from cancer. The sick woman tells Vesta that she has invited the local policeman – and refers to him, impossibly, as Ghod.
Vesta is both self-obsessed and self-negating, condescending and ashamed. ‘Nobody had a face like mine,’ she says. ‘I was gorgeous.’ Early in the book, she launches into a diatribe against the patrons of the local supermarket: ‘heavy women, big as cows, whose thick ankles seemed about to snap as they tottered up and down the aisles with their huge shopping carts filled with junk food’. This seems like gratuitous venom – until, near the novel’s end, Vesta recalls the notebook she found among Walter’s papers after his death, which contained descriptions of the students he’d lusted over, such as ‘Gretchen, short and stubby with big bosoms’.
She tells us that her surname, Gul, is pronounced like ‘gull’, not ‘ghoul’. But when people call her ‘ghoul’ she never corrects them – in fact, she introduces herself that way, with the wrong pronunciation. Of course ‘Ghoul’ begat ‘Ghod’, which sounds like ‘God’. There are further winks at the reader. When Vesta runs into ‘Shirley’ looking for her keys in the library toilets, she says, ‘Shirley?’ and then quickly covers for her faux pas: ‘Surely, surely they’re around here somewhere.’ Vesta is given a copy of a book called Death, presumably so that Moshfegh can describe a scene in which she walks ‘in her dusty coat grasping Death in her hands’. Not all these games are necessary, nor is a metacommentary culminating in a remembered line from Walter, who tells Vesta that ‘reality was a perception, and that my perception was inherently flawed.’ There is enough to puzzle over in the novel without banging so loudly for our attention. As the book nears its end two mysteries remain: what’s on the island and what happened to Vesta’s dog? One of those is a MacGuffin; or perhaps they both are, or neither is. Death in Her Hands isn’t a conventional mystery, and it isn’t going to give you the satisfaction of a conventional ending. But it does satisfy, and in ways I hadn’t expected. I hope that, for Moshfegh, this is the new abnormal.