CULTURE & ARTS

In 'Death In Her Hands,' The Cure For Loneliness Is A Good Murder

Ottessa Moshfegh's third novel follows an aging widow's amateur investigation into a killing that may never have taken place.
"Death in Her Hands" is a “loneliness story," according to author Ottessa Moshfegh.
"Death in Her Hands" is a “loneliness story," according to author Ottessa Moshfegh.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, “Death in Her Hands,” opens with a note written in “neat, impersonal printing” on ruled notebook paper. 

“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”

When Vesta Gul, an elderly woman out for a morning walk with her dog Charlie, finds the note on the ground in the birch woods near her lonely cabin, she looks for Magda nearby but finds nothing, not even a “tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches.” Is there really a body? Is it a prank, a trick, the first line of a short story?

Vesta soon becomes convinced that the murder is real, despite the absence of a body, and begins to investigate haphazardly. It’s impossible to ignore, reading “Death in Her Hands,” how much detective work resembles writing a story. In fact, Vesta lingers over it, looking up “top tips for mystery writers” to aid her investigation and deeming the task “a creative endeavor, not some calculated procedure.”

The gumshoe reaches for stock characters to populate a suspect list; dreams up possible motives, behavioral patterns, hidden veins of rage or perversity; tries out narrative after narrative of the fateful event to find an order of events that rings true. If Vesta’s array of suspects is suspiciously untethered to reality — one, she decides with some sense of portent, should be a ghoul named “Ghod” — and her theories of the murder arise from nothing more than her own lurid imagination, well, she’s only a bit further down the continuum toward pure storytelling. 

“Death in Her Hands” shows another way of dealing with loneliness and unnameable grief: desperately clamping onto a familiar story form in order to organize one’s pain, fear and the voices in one’s head.

In a New York Times interview this spring, Moshfegh called “Death in Her Hands” a “loneliness story.” Widowed and friendless in her twilight years, Vesta lives in an isolated cabin, in an area she just moved to, with only her big, lumbering, loyal dog for company. She despises the locals, who she sees as uncultured, impoverished, unhealthy. Her daily schedule revolves around walks with Charlie and a weekly grocery trip for rubbery bagels and rotisserie chicken. It would be mind-numbing — the loneliness, the boredom — were it not for the urgent task that falls into her lap: solving a murder.

“Death in Her Hands” contains both the assurance that usually marks Moshfegh’s writing — the disaffected narrator, breathing contemptuously from the page; the queasy sensory details (she eats chicken with her fingers, “not caring that the gelatinous fat was clinging to my lips and gumming up my teeth”); the slightly poisonous atmosphere, like a miasma lingering in the air — and a self-conscious anxiety about every narrative choice.

With Vesta as an authorial surrogate, her investigation a proxy for the construction of a novel, Moshfegh can linger over the many pitfalls of storytelling. Vesta muses that the note, the first line of the novel, may have been a hacky first line of a novel “tossed out as a false start, a bad opening. I could understand the hesitation. It’s a rather dark, damning way to begin a story: the pronouncement of a mystery whose investigation is futile.” (Everyone’s a critic these days.) She dissects the note, its arrogance and silliness. She concludes that it must have been written by a boy, a teenager. She calls him Blake. “It was the kind of name parents were naming their boys these days … the name was sneaky and a bit dumb, the kind of boy who would write, It wasn’t me.” 

A crime novel, it seems, is the form Moshfegh reaches for when she needs to get something done. She once infamously told The Guardian that she’d written “Eileen,” the literary noir that launched her to fame, in hopes of winning a big publishing contract and a name. This novel, written before “Eileen” was published, also had a utilitarian purpose, she told The New York Times this spring: to help her recover emotionally from finishing her short story collection “Homesick for Another World.” 

“I needed to write something to get me onto the other side of an experience,” she said. So she forced herself to write at least 1,000 words a day until she completed a project, and ended up with another play on crime fiction. 

Ottessa Moshfegh's latest book is a mystery novel about mystery novels.
Ottessa Moshfegh's latest book is a mystery novel about mystery novels.

Moshfegh’s second novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” almost determinedly resisted narrative movement; her protagonist spends the book sinking further and further into medicated sleep to cope with a profound loneliness and grief she refuses to name. 

“Death in Her Hands” shows another way of dealing with loneliness and unnameable grief: desperately clamping onto a familiar story form in order to organize one’s pain, fear and the voices in one’s head. 

The recent true crime trend has sometimes been lauded as a practical response to a world in which women are constantly endangered. The target audience for these shows and podcasts, however, tends to be the least threatened women: white, middle-class, cis women who are unlikely to face an attack by a stranger. Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, hosts of popular podcast “My Favorite Murder,” come closer to the answer in their frequent refrain that they talk about murder because they’re anxious. True crime offers a palliative to anxiety — not just, as they tend to imply, anxiety about literally being murdered while walking to one’s car, but free-floating anxiety, anxiety about work or relationships or moving through the world. True crime orients our inchoate feelings of fearful tension toward a clear threat and a step-by-step resolution. 

“Games, all kinds, are to give stupid people some sense of control over reality,” Vesta recalls her late husband Walter telling her. “But we are not in control — not them, nor you or me, Vesta.”

And yet a crime to solve harnesses Moshfegh’s unease, and also Vesta’s, at least temporarily. Vesta, who dumped her lorazepam in the toilet because she “felt it disrespectful to try to numb away [her] grief” for her Walter, could use some soothing. As her quixotic quest veers further and further from its tenuous roots in reality, we learn more about the roots of her unease. Prior to his death, Walter dominated her life; a German-born professor with a punishing charisma, he commanded all her time and attention. At first her reminiscences of him seem fond. Her mourning for him was consuming; her loneliness is deep. Without him, she clings to Charlie, her newly adopted dog, for security and companionship. But dark notes begin to slip in, a vision of a life spent playing hostess to her husband’s colleagues, enduring his criticisms and betrayals, wondering what might have been if she hadn’t met him when she was so young and tethered herself to him until death. 

As Vesta’s investigation careens toward its conclusion, she struggles to hold all the threads — of the plot she believes she’s uncovering, of the plot of her own life. The novel itself seems wobbly as Vesta’s mental state slides off a cliff, sliding in and out of bizarre scenes that may be real or hallucinations. 

The shakiness of “Death in Her Hands” — the endless metacriticism, the glimpses into the alternate rushes of smugness and despair that make up the writing process, the cascade of visions and plot twists that bring it all to a resolution — makes it a curious read, both out of control and hyperaware of the lack of control. And yet there’s something touching about this, which makes it appealing even at its rough moments.  

Moshfegh’s fiction is so often coated in diamond-hard layers of cynicism; in “Death in Her Hands,” the cynicism is cracked. We can reach out and touch the fragile emotional core. Even as the reader can’t trust Vesta, a classic unreliable narrator, Moshfegh lets us close to her needy heart; deep down, despite her barbed tongue and her self-imposed isolation, she wants to be found.