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Ottessa Moshfegh’s Pursuit of Disgust

Why her new novel, “Death in Her Hands,” strives to be gross

Christopher Lane

The novel is a matter of seduction. Most novelists ply us with something we cannot resist—language, character, humor, story—to win our attention. Ottessa Moshfegh works by standoffishness, her language lean and efficient, her novels withholding the pleasure of plot or scene. Those novels—Eileen (2015), My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), and, now, Death in Her Hands—are disorienting in a literal sense, their narrators disconnected from any real place but the page. And about those narrators: They’re what the Goodreads commentariat calls unlikable.

Death in Her Hands
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press, 272 pp., $27.00

Moshfegh holds her readers at a remove. Her affectless narrators describe events that sound over the top—running away from home, self-medicating into catatonia, stumbling onto what might be a murder scene—but the texture of the worlds they inhabit is not heightened or exalted. In fact, it’s base, and gross. Her novels’ three women protagonists reject feminine (indeed, human) niceties: They’re dirty, drunken, drugged, debased, and this does not shame them—indeed, it’s cause for pride. “I hated showering, especially in winter since the hot water was spotty. I liked to languish in my own filth as long as I could tolerate it,” Eileen’s eponymous narrator tells us. Here’s how Year’s nameless narrator quits her job at an art gallery: “I pulled down my pants, squatted, and shat on the floor.… That felt like vindication. That was my proper good-bye.”

Obviously, it’s Moshfegh’s characters who are outré, not the author. But it’s hard to avoid confusing the two. Moshfegh gives the sorts of interviews in which she declares, “I’m the most self-assured person I’ve ever met, very arrogant at times, sure. I can’t make a wrong move.” She does not tweet, which is perhaps all for the best, given her assertion in an essay in The Guardian that “We are all unruly and selfish sometimes.” There’s a way to understand this as kind of a performance, an artist rejecting the niceties expected of her, particularly given her youth and her gender. The novels perform a similar rejection; the hollow ideal of the badass, empowered woman is not for Moshfegh. However profoundly troubled her narrators are, they are somehow free: liberated from convention, from society itself. The novels take this on faith, and do not examine this arc, because Moshfegh is not interested in it. These women do not care.

Moshfegh’s novels, uninterested in the dominant modes of contemporary fiction—the genteel tale of middle-class concerns, the politically engaged social novel, the self-aware meta-text—represent a riposte to her near-peers (Jonathan Franzen, Ben Lerner, Rachel Kushner, et al.). Rejection is her belief; you might call it nihilism. So it’s hard to know what to make of her newest novel, which posits rejection as the path to the holy. It’s less a form of Stoicism than an inversion of the old saw that puts cleanliness next to Godliness. Life is gross; ain’t that divine?

Death in Her Hands leaps into action immediately: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” This isn’t dialogue, but a note, found in the woods by the novel’s narrator, who concedes: “If not a prank, the note could have been the beginning of a story tossed out as a false start, a bad opening.” Moshfegh gives and she takes away: dangling the promise of a propulsive murder mystery, then suggesting it might be nothing. However easily the unadorned sentences go down, from this moment on, the reader is on guard.

Death’s narrator is a 72-year-old woman with the unlikely name Vesta Gul. She is widowed, and mourns her late husband, Walter, though it’s his death that grants her liberty—enough money to see out her days comfortably. She has moved to a cabin in the woods: “I felt I needed to hide a little. My mind needed a smaller world to roam.” She knocks around with only the company of her dog, Charlie—one of the better-drawn animal characters I’ve encountered. (Vesta and the dog dance, and then: “When I let go of his paws, he butted his head against my thighs, a kind of punctuation, and went back to his bowl of water.”) Once a week, she drives into town for groceries; she marks time by the bagels she consumes daily. “Those days, my list of things to do was short: Read, Nap, Eat,” she tells us. This refusal of excess food, entertainment (for which Vesta has only talk radio), or human contact is ennobled. Living in sylvan solitude, Vesta is like the heroic daughter of one of Jack London’s rugged individuals.

The discovery of the strange note—despite its promise, there is no dead body—throws Vesta first into action and ultimately into crisis. If Death in Her Hands is a mystery novel, our protagonist is our sleuth, but as there’s nothing to really investigate, Vesta’s imagination takes over. She decides to give the note’s anonymous author a name: “Blake.” It is a simple flight of fancy, but once Vesta thinks it, Blake becomes real, the book’s antagonist. Moshfegh merely appends to this development the observation: “Strange, strange what the mind will do.” This is almost statement of purpose.

I see this as confirmation that we can’t take anything that ensues—the discovery of clues, the encounters with police, the vivid picture of the imperiled Magda that develops—as real, but of course, a novel is artifice by definition. Death is a mystery closer to one of Vladimir Nabokov’s than Agatha Christie’s. Vesta is a hybrid of Miss Marple and Charles Kinbote; everything she sees is a clue to the supposed death of the unknowable Magda. You have to expect some resolution—the revelation of the killer is a murder mystery’s central promise—but I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to tell you right now that the butler most certainly did not do it.

Everything that happens in Death feels portentous. Vesta goes to the library, where she logs on to Ask Jeeves to inquire: “Is Magda dead?” She sees a pop-up ad for hunting gear and orders a camouflage bodysuit. She sees a banner ad: TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS! It’s tantalizing for the reader who imagines this might coalesce: that Magda is real, that the camouflage bodysuit will have something to do with finding her body, that Moshfegh might obey some of those tips for mystery writers.

A stranger at the library shelves a volume by William Blake, which seems to implicate the Blake that Vesta has imagined. Does someone break into her cabin and ruin her garden to dissuade her from investigating? Does the disfigured man at the local store know something? Will Vesta’s climactic encounter with her reclusive neighbors clarify what’s really happening? The questions outweigh the answers, and the stakes are never that high to begin with; no reader can possibly believe Magda ever existed.

Rapid shifts in logic here—from the imaginary Blake to William Blake to a woman Vesta meets whose son is named Blake—made me think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, in which the narrative premise shifts with every scene, so that there’s no fixed sense of character or place. This tactic seems to interrogate the nature of fiction. It is easier to pull off when the work in question holds the reader close; Ishiguro’s book enchants with its commitment to storytelling, even if that story changes every few pages. I don’t think Moshfegh’s aim is to explore the falsity of storytelling, and anyway it would be a tall order, given her strategy of detachment, irony, and disgust that keeps the reader at arm’s length.

Moshfegh is working in one of the most seductive genres, but without any real conviction. Once you sense that Vesta is not going to solve the mystery, the herrings look a lot less red, and your attention wanders. The text doesn’t hold together as a novel or even as a system for making some point about novels. This isn’t a book about one specific death, but death more generally. Even the title is a feint; toward the end of the novel, Vesta is given a book titled Death, and she walks home holding it—in her hands. I’m not making this up.

Moshfegh’s dark perspective makes crime fiction and its attendant moods a natural territory for her. She’s worked in this register before; the first chapter of Eileen closes with the eponymous narrator telling us, “This is the story of how I disappeared.” But in that book, too, despite the promise of plot, Moshfegh gives us a catalog of horrors (the narrator’s poverty, her grim job at a juvenile correctional facility, her alcoholic father) instead of story.

Death is a bit of a turn: Its protagonist, despite living in splendid isolation, is engaged with the world. Eileen seeks escape from her reality; Year’s narrator wants to slip the bonds of consciousness itself. The titular year of resting and relaxing is a literal endeavor, the narrator inside her apartment, swallowing pills so she can doze in front of the television. Once she figures out how to truly anesthetize herself, the time slips by, unseen, or unspoken of.

The reader can comprehend these women’s desire; little is appealing about the worlds in which they dwell. Moshfegh offers grotesquerie (vomit, shit, the darkest of thoughts) in lieu of action. Drunken Eileen proceeds down a staircase “gripping the splintery banister.” Sex cannot transcend this; it’s not thrilling but disgusting. Eileen pictures her two hated co-workers as lesbians “in sexual positions, faces poised at each other’s private parts, sneering at the smell as they extended their caramel-stained tongues.” (Moshfegh’s characters seem to have a particular antipathy for homosexuality, as though homophobia were just another aspect of their general odiousness.)

In Death, forget sex: Bodies are objectionable. When Vesta ventures into the nearby town, Bethsmane, she notices “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.” A patron at the library makes Vesta recoil: “It was an old woman, like me, but grizzled, in a long beige raincoat and soiled slippers. From twenty paces she reeked of rotting fish.” Who would not want to renounce membership in a society thus peopled? Vesta imagines Magda as a boarder, who can afford accommodation only in a basement: “It must have been awful to live in someone else’s home that way, like Anne Frank.” This isn’t the only reference to the Holocaust in the text; it’s more glib than anything, an assertion by the author that nothing is off limits, anything can be made a metaphor or, indeed, a joke. (Vesta then imagines the poor girl forced to shit into a bucket, since the basement surely has no bathroom.)

Even Moshfegh seems to know that just enumerating the ways in which the world is gross does not a novel make. Toward the end of both Eileen and Year, she atones for the lack of plot by introducing a decisive event. In the former, Eileen and a colleague end up (somewhat unwittingly) seeking justice for one of the boys incarcerated in the facility where they work; the latter book becomes, hastily, a text about 9/11. This salves the reader’s desire for story, even if it undermines, slightly, the author’s point. If life isn’t more than a nap, why bother with global events at all?

Vesta’s quest does not lead her to Magda, but she does encounter the divine. “I run as fast as I can now. I feel the wind on my face. God follows but I get lost in the darkness. Maybe I can stay in these woods forever, I think.” There are hints earlier in the book that God is of interest—one of Vesta’s only companions is the radio, particularly a late-night program hosted by a Pastor Jimmy. “People would ask questions about Scripture, and occasionally for advice about how to handle some difficult situation in their lives in a good Christian way.” There’s a biblical flavor to the place names in this book (Levant and Bethsmane, the latter so like Gethsemane), and there’s a whole other metaphor happening with the police officer Vesta decides is named “Ghod.” I am not persuaded that any of this means the subject of the book is God.

Theologically, mystery is a term used for all that God knows, the stuff humankind will never comprehend: God’s motivations, God’s ability, God’s miracles. It’s a loophole, maybe. The incomprehensible will remain forever just that, which relieves us of the burden to make sense of things. Moshfegh tantalizes with literary mystery, then invokes something more exalted. But what happened to Magda—or what people are named, or why they suffer, or why the world is so grotesque—is not God’s creation; it’s Moshfegh’s. Perhaps there’s a reader who will find epiphany in this. I remain an unbeliever.