In 2016, Ottessa Moshfegh stirred up controversy by claiming her debut Eileen started life as a cynical experiment: using a “ridiculous” guide called The 90-Day Novel, she had deliberately attempted to craft a book that would be commercially successful. “It started out as a fuck-you joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous,” she said in an interview with The Guardian. Her plan worked – not only was Eileen a bestseller, it was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
With Eileen and her subsequent work, Moshfegh has established herself as a chronicler of the downtrodden and the misanthropic. Though its plot incorporates elements of the classic thriller, Eileen is most successful as a portrait of its protagonist’s self-loathing. The narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) is so miserable that she chooses to withdraw from society and “hibernate” (the novel is currently being hailed as a prescient portrayal of life under quarantine). The short stories in Homesick for Another World (2017) depict characters blazing with contempt for themselves, others, and the world. To read Moshfegh is to plumb the darkest corners of the human experience. Yet her writing is so fearless, and so technically excellent, that it’s difficult not to be thrilled by it – and to feel sparks of sympathy and recognition, too.
With that in mind, one might be forgiven for assuming Death in Her Hands represents a departure. Its narrator is Vesta, an inquisitive 72-year-old widow living a seemingly comfortable life in a lakeside cabin. One day, as she walks her beloved dog Charlie, she finds a strange note on the ground. “Her name was Magda,” it reads. “Here is her dead body.” But there is no body. It’s an intriguing mystery, and Vesta is instantly obsessed. Instead of going to the police, however, she concocts her own story about the unknown Magda. When she decides to base her “investigation” on the contents of a website titled “Top Tips for Mystery Writers’, those familiar with the origins of Eileen may begin to suspect this story is not all it seems…
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From the beginning, the author is dropping hints about what kind of story this is. Are you interested in what may really have happened, or are you interested in Vesta’s unfounded fantasy that “Magda” was a young immigrant with several lovers? There’s no correct answer; Death in Her Hands is a self-referential satire that’s determined to follow its own strange path. Simply by reading it, you become a pawn in Moshfegh’s metafictional game. This becomes abundantly clear in the book’s disorientating climax, a rush of escalating dread and loss of control reminiscent of Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things.
Moshfegh, it’s clear, is having a lot of fun with her concept. But is the reader? There is an obvious drawback to the novel’s structure, reliant as it is on the details of Magda’s speculations. Many of her ideas – for example, that one of Magda’s lovers is a ghoul named Ghod who manifests in the form of a police officer – come off as silly, and it’s frustrating to have to spend so much time reading about them. The process of figuring out Vesta herself is more satisfying; slowly, we recognise her as a typically Moshfeghian antiheroine, and we understand a little about her background. Yet the relatively small amount of space accorded to this character development inevitably makes her less compelling than the protagonists of Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation.
Death in Her Hands is a smart feat of literary trickery. Considering Moshfegh’s career so far, there’s something of the biography about its depiction of a woman creating a story to fit a formula, and I enjoyed the symmetry of that. At the same time, it’s possibly Moshfegh’s least enjoyable novel so far – so preoccupied with its own cleverness that it forgets to imbue the plot with any sense of consequence. I reached the end feeling like the book’s narrative trick, while neat, was essentially a joke at my expense. It’s an easier book to admire than enjoy.