By Allen Michie
It’s as if Moshfegh is testing the furthest limits of a “red herring”: what if everything is red and everything is herring?
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press, 259 pages, $27.
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There’s a scene in Death in Her Hands, the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, where people are all dressed up for a murder mystery party. There is a well-appointed country house. The host and hostess are in full Victorian garb. The theme is Sherlock Holmes, and costumed guests are to play a game and solve a puzzle. The occasion of the party, eerily enough, is a celebration of the hostess’s final days before she dies of untreated cancer.
But Moshfegh cuts off the scene before any of the guests arrive. We don’t learn what the mystery game will be. We get no clues, no characters, no situation, and no fun. Nothing about that scene matters in any way to how the plot unfolds, except that the host gives the elderly narrator a book titled Death to carry as she walks through the woods alone at night.
This scene is a synecdoche for the entire novel. All of the elements of a good mystery or psychological thriller are here, but little is done with them. Almost nothing happens. There are few clues, there is no big reveal, the central mystery goes unsolved, and it isn’t suspenseful. Dramatic escalation? Someone stealing seedlings from a garden and neatly raking up afterward.
Some reviewers, like Kevin Power in the New Yorker, find this approach profound: “There are the usual games of form and narration, but they are made to operate in the service of Moshfegh’s real subject, which is the final inability of fiction to redeem a maimed life. Death in Her Hands is not a murder mystery, nor is it really a story about self-deception or the perils of escapism. Rather, it’s a haunting meditation on the nature and meaning of art.” I grant that the novel may not be a murder mystery, strictly speaking, but I would also insist that it needs to be much more engaging and coherent to be a “haunting meditation” on much of anything, let alone the nature and the meaning of art.
I came to this novel semi-randomly and with no preconceptions. I learned later, to my surprise, that Moshfegh was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, and won the PEN Hemingway Award for debut fiction for her first novel, Eileen. Her novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation was a bestseller and brought her a flattering profile in the New Yorker in 2018.
The premise of Death in Her Hands is promising — an elderly widow lives alone in a former Girl Scout lodge with strange faded drawings on the walls. She has no family, no friends, an unreliable car, and no phone. (Really. No phone.) The lodge is surrounded by dark woods, her 12-acre property is mostly unexplored, her nearest neighbors are far away and unfriendly, and there is a little island on the lake that holds some secrets.
The narrator, Vesta Gul, finds a cryptic note in the woods suggesting that a murder has taken place and a body is buried nearby. She leaves an equally cryptic note in return, and she receives a fragment of poetry in response. She creates an elaborate cast of characters in her imagination and begins investigating their backgrounds and motives one by one. It’s hard to care about these characters, however, because they are only in her mind. (Or are they? Woo-woo…. But by the time that angle is explored, we already have no emotional investment in them.)
Apart from this exchange of cryptic notes, Vesta mostly just goes on long walks and feeds her dog. Sometimes she goes to the library and skims the narrowest surface of the internet for background on the case. If you enjoy trying to figure out whodunit before the protagonist does, you’ll have no satisfaction here.
Instead, there is filler. It’s as if Moshfegh is testing the furthest limits of a “red herring”: what if everything is red and everything is herring? There are pages and pages and pages and pages of filler that contribute almost nothing to character development and absolutely nothing to the plot. For starters, there is Vesta’s dog, Charlie. We learn everything there is to know about Charlie: where he came from, how he looks, how he feels, how lentils make him fart, the time he rolled around in poop and had to have a bath with dishwashing liquid, how he sits when he waits in the car, how he sounds when he wants to go for a walk, how his paws get cleaned when he comes inside, etc. I am not exaggerating: approximately a quarter of the book is about that damn dog. Again, he has nothing to do with the plot, aside from being an excuse for walks that take the narrator from Point A to Point B. There is some mysterious business with the dog in the last chapter, but it is unexplained and unresolved.
If a quarter of the book is about Charlie the dog, then another quarter is about Vesta’s late husband, Walter. We learn vastly more about him, too, than we need or care to know, and — you guessed it — he has nothing to do with the plot. We start out thinking he’s a harmless old German academic (with a specialty in Epistemology, the philosophy of how we know what we know, which is as close to a blunt clue as this novel provides). We later learn he was a creep. He’s used as a signpost for us to chart the increasing instability of the narrator, a way for us to “consider how the stories we tell ourselves both reflect the truth and keep us blind to it,” as the cover flap says. The reader has a long slog through much Walter-related trivia to unearth that nugget, however.
Of course not every mystery novel needs to fit neatly into the Mystery genre. You don’t even necessarily have to have much of a plot. Little is resolved in The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. But you don’t read James for the plot (or if you do, bless your heart); you read him for the language and style. Moshfegh offers no comparable rewards; the language here is mostly terse, flat, and only conventionally descriptive. The sentences seem to average about six words. The novel is told exclusively in first-person, and some alternation in narrative voice might have added refreshing variety to the prose. Perhaps it might have also provided some dimension to the novel’s tentative theme of shared “mindspace.” There are long strings of questions and rarely any answers (which would have been more interesting, but harder work). The cumulative effect is more tedious than provocative. It flirts with profundity, but it doesn’t commit:
Life was robust. It was stubborn. Life took so much to ruin. One had to beat it out of the body. Even just the slightest seed of life, a fertilized egg, took payment, an expert, a machine, and an industrial vacuum, I’d heard. Life was persistent. There it was, every day. Each morning it woke me up. It was loud and brash. A bully. A lounge singer in a garish sequin dress. A runaway truck. A jackhammer. A brush fire. A canker sore. Death was different. It was tender, a mystery. What was it, even? Why did anybody have to die?… There were theories—heaven, hell, rebirth, and so forth. But did anybody really know? Was there an answer? How unfair it seemed to send the living off into death, into the unknown, so cold.
Vesta is a classic unreliable narrator, and there are a few clues scattered throughout that her imagination is more tethered to reality than we (or she) initially thinks. Still, unless the character has advanced Alzheimer’s (of which there is no indication), too many events and situations are left unaccounted for — even if she is improbably living a double life and can’t remember a thing about one of them.
The final chapter offers up some welcome surprises, if little resolution. Bits and pieces of Vesta’s emotional and psychological complexity are clarified. Death in Her Hands may have been more of a worthwhile read if the entire novel had been written in the same vein.
Allen Michie works in a higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He has a PhD in English Literature and has published on the history and theory of the novel, including Richardson and Fielding: the Dynamics of a Critical Rivalry (Bucknell University Press).