Ottessa Moshfegh’s Riveting Meta-Mysteries

In her third novel, the writer again explores women’s quests for control over their own stories.

Jake Belcher

“I’ve disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package,” Ottessa Moshfegh said about her debut novel, Eileen, published in 2015. Convinced that readers wouldn’t pick up a novel about a self-loathing woman with little desire to please others, she masked her “freak book” as a mystery. To Moshfegh’s frustration, readers still fixated on the grossness of Eileen—a laxative-addicted clerk at a juvenile prison who has vivid, violent thoughts—so she funneled similarly off-putting traits into the narrator of her second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but gave her the looks of an off-duty model. (“Try to tell me she’s disgusting!” she told one interviewer.) In her latest novel, Death in Her Hands, Moshfegh is back to her old formal tricks. This time, she uses a meta-mystery-gone-mad to explore a question that applies to her own oeuvre: How much control can women have over their narratives?

The opening of Death in Her Hands gestures as much toward fable as to mystery. Vesta Gul is a 72-year-old widow who lives in a secluded former Girl Scout cabin in the woods with a muscular dog, her “alarm and bodyguard.” One day, while on a dawn walk, she stumbles upon a note that reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” The notepaper is suspiciously pristine, the penmanship impersonal—the kind “you’d use when making a sign for a yard sale,” Vesta observes. More puzzling, there is no body, or any sign of there ever having been a body, and Vesta has never met a Magda in her tiny town. The story that ensues—told from the unsympathetic, utterly unreliable first-person perspective of Vesta—is Vesta’s attempt to solve the mystery, or, rather, the mystery of whether there is even a mystery to solve.

Penguin Press

The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino once described Ottessa Moshfegh as the “most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.” In light of her latest novel, Moshfegh might also be viewed as an unflinching chronicler of the wild things women are pushed to do in the face of emptiness. Vesta—who has no phone, internet, or friends—seizes upon the note as a welcome disruption of her routinized, isolated existence. She’s seen her fair share of Agatha Christie films, but pursues sleuthing methods that are as absurd as her predicament with comical conviction. At the local library, she types “Is Magda dead?” into Ask Jeeves, and when that returns nothing of use, clicks on a page of “TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS!”

Inspired, Vesta begins trying to solve the mystery by writing it, inventing an elaborate backstory for Magda and conjuring a cast of fictional suspects. The further she delves into her imagination, the more conspiratorial Vesta’s thinking becomes. A random poem in the library is a clue left just for her, she is sure; people she encounters in town are suspects from her list (a list that she forgets is pure fiction). Before long, Moshfegh’s meta-narrative becomes unhinged.

Yet a more serious thread emerges from the farce. Caught up in her fantasizing, Vesta sees elements of her past anew. Fond recollections of her late husband, a respected scientist named Walter, give way to darker ones, and we learn in intrusive spurts how he had overshadowed her thoughts and feelings for decades. He “nipped my moods in the bud the moment a twinge of anything untoward showed on my face,” she recalls, and he forbade her from using contraceptive pills because “they sapped a woman’s integrity.” A year after his death, Walter continues to inhabit Vesta’s mind “like a nosy adversary,” appearing in daydreams to berate and judge her. Trapped inside Vesta’s claustrophobic brain, we become detectives ourselves, trying to sort out what happened in her past, what is happening in her present, and what is some warped invention inspired by her traumatic marriage.

Vesta’s darkly comedic methods of finding meaning recall those of the unnamed narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation—with a key twist. Vesta escapes into her imagination as a way out of solitude. By contrast, the 24-year-old who escapes into unconsciousness in the earlier novel is looking for a way to disconnect from the world. A Columbia graduate and “effortless beauty” enmeshed in a Manhattan art scene filled with “canned counterculture crap,” she’s convinced that her privileged existence has been pointless. Her solution is to “sleep [her]self into a new life” by self-medicating for a year. She finds a psychiatrist in the yellow pages to write her scripts. (Dr. Tuttle dispenses medical guidance such as “Try visiting a church or synagogue to ask for advice on inner peace” and “Dial 9-1-1 if anything bad happens.”) Then she starts combining prescription drugs with the verve of a chef improvising a recipe.

The idea of authorship as a means of control is central to both books. Vesta writes a mystery to bring motive and arc to her own existence. The narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation opts for self-erasure in her effort to be reborn “a whole new person.” Meaning and momentum are scrubbed away in this tale whose teller is only semiconscious much of the time; after mixing pills, she wakes at random intervals to find her hair chopped off, her furniture rearranged, or herself on the Long Island Rail Road, and doesn’t typically care enough to figure out how she wound up there. She gives us little backstory to contextualize her emptiness—mentioning her “dead parents” only when explaining why she has money, or while asking her psychiatrist for more meds. For the grand finale of her drug-induced hibernation, she tries to sleep for all but 40 hours in four months—a willed act of will-lessness that becomes a dangerous kind of performance art.

“The deep sleep I would soon enter required a completely blank canvas if I was to emerge from it fully renewed,” she says—and she recruits a pretentious young artist named Ping Xi to be her sleep “warden.” She gives him carte blanche to use her blacked-out body for his own work, so long as he leaves no trace of his presence in her home. (“There was to be no narrative that I could follow, no pieces for me to put together.”) When she finally awakens, she claims success: “There was majesty and grace in the pace of the swaying branches of the willows. … My sleep had worked.”

That we doubt her abrupt discovery of grandeur in the world seems to be Moshfegh’s intention: Even her drug-addled narrator, though she takes to rising with the sun and feeding squirrels in the park, doesn’t seem fully bought in. Her rhapsodizing is hollow and rote, like a parody of the self-help literature on opting out of our connected, capitalist world. Moshfegh is merciless when it comes to the vacuousness and self-seriousness of the art world, but making art is still the only path to redemption her narrator can see. It’s a profoundly grim punch line that art—though it briefly gives her a sense of hope—doesn’t save her from the void.

The epiphanies of Death in Her Hands are similarly double-edged, at once ridiculous and existentially charged. As Vesta attempts to solve the mystery, it’s not the “cozy whodunit” that unravels, but her own sanity—and the reader realizes that Vesta’s fate, not Magda’s, is at stake. Paranoid that someone is after her, Vesta scrounges among the crudest of genre-fiction tricks in what seems to be an attempt to assert control over her own story: She dons a midnight-black camouflage onesie and sets up booby traps in her home, like she’d “seen done once on a television show.” Vesta succeeds in engineering the sense of momentum she has long craved, but no plot device can grant her the agency she seeks—a problem not unlike the one the novel itself faces. In this pulpier companion to her previous book, Moshfegh strikes an uncanny balance between absurdity and urgency that makes for propulsive reading, all the while making a mockery of serious suspense.

For Moshfegh, who has said she started writing Death in Her Hands five years ago “to get [herself] onto the other side of an experience” of deep grief, crafting this meta-fictional mystery was purposeful work. Alone and adrift in San Francisco, she forced herself to write 1,000 words a day “until [she] reached the conclusion of something,” she recently told The New York Times. The result feels less ingeniously and cruelly playful than her fiction has been in the past. Still, Moshfegh’s gift for staring down darkness—for finding spiffy packages for awfulness—is rare and unexpectedly riveting. If art can’t reclaim maimed pasts, erase pointless ones, or promise better futures, a writer who keeps us listening to her alienated female narrators, intrigued by their fates, has managed a feat.