What happens to a murder mystery without the murder?
It’s a mystery. But not in the sense of the literary genre, or a secret. It’s a mystery in the sense of religious awe: that which awaits interpretation. And so, Death in Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh‘s new novel, opens with these italicized words:
Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.
“But,” our narrator tells us, “there was no body.” There is only the handwritten note, and for the reminder of the novel, the narrator’s interpretations.
Our narrator turns out to be a 72-year-old widow named Vesta Gul. She tells us that it’s pronounced “gull”, like the bird, but people keep pronouncing it “gool”, like the corpse-eating monster, which might be revealing. Vesta has recently moved from the Midwest to a former campsite in the Northeast with her new dog, Charlie, after the death of her old husband, Walter, a professor of epistemology. But Vesta’s breakfast habits tell us far more than any plot summary:
The bagels I had every morning for breakfast were from the supermarket and came precut in a package of half a dozen. They weren’t particularly healthy—bleached flour, full of preservatives—nor were they very tasty. They were chewy and dry, and sweet in a way bagels ought not be. But I liked them anyway. I hadn’t bought myself a toaster. It seemed like an unnecessary luxury when I had a perfectly good oven. But who wants to heat an entire oven just to warm a bad bagel? It didn’t matter. I ate them cold, one every morning, Tuesday through Sunday. Monday morning, when I’d run out of bagels, I drove the Bethsmane and got a donut….
And so, between Vesta’s agitation, isolation, and an imagination that we discover had been thwarted by Walter, who turns out to be less benign than we thought, a dead body isn’t necessary for an investigation after all.
Vesta, whose name comes from the Latin, “to dwell”, indeed dwells upon the problem. She immediately invents a scenario for the murder, using the ready-made language of crime stories already familiar to us: “…her hands hog-tied behind her back, the blood from the stab wounds leaching into the ground… Or maybe ‘hog-tied’ would be a bit too strong. Maybe ‘stab wounds’ were too graphic too soon.”
She invents an identity for Magda: “This was not a Jenny or Sally or Mary or Sue. Magda was a name for a character with substance, a mysterious past. Exotic, even.” She imagines who left the note, this time inventing a name from whole cloth (“Blake”), and a set of accompanying characters and circumstances for Magda’s backstory, the life that led to the death, and the note.
When her conjecture still isn’t enough, Vesta goes to the library and uses its computer to search, “Is Magda dead?” (That she uses Ask Jeeves is one of the only time markers in the novel—without it, the setting feels like it could be almost any time, or timeless.) She then finds a link to “TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS!” which provides the prompts that lead to the entire following chapter.
Death in Her Hands, then, is less a murder mystery, or even a mystery, than a work of metafiction, a story about how we construct our stories, of telling the story of telling the story. There’s little dialogue, since Vesta has almost no one to talk to—mainly Charlie, her dog, who does not respond, and reconstructed memories of Walter, who unfortunately does. There’s little action—once the note is discovered on the top of page one, the trip to the library is the most momentous event for much of the novel. And I don’t think it counts as a spoiler to reveal that there is no revelation, twist—or body.
Instead, Magda dies, and lives, in language only. But then again, don’t all literary characters? The difference, of course, is that Moshfegh keeps reminding us that Magda is Vesta’s creation, just as Vesta is Moshfegh’s. In its use of irony and indirection to explore Vesta’s psychology, Death in Her Hands is reminiscent of Henry James‘ modern realism; in its attention to the ways in which our mysteries are constructed more than they are solved with language, Death in Her Hands evokes Paul Auster’s postmodern detective stories.
But more than James or Auster, Moshfegh presents a narrator who has, as a woman, been shut out of the narrative and artistic process. “If I was an artist,” Vesta muses, “I thought I would paint a huge black-and-red canvas, stabbing with my brush in a frenzy until I fell down on the floor in a heap, sweating and dizzy, the world spinning above me. I wished I could be breathless like that, and for so long I’d believed I couldn’t.”
She is in line with aspiring painter Lilly Briscoe, of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, of whom resident misogynist Charles Tansley says, “Women can’t paint, women can’t write.” As the book continues, Vesta more and more frequently recalls Walter’s contempt, his dismissals, his abuse. She is descended from Sula Peace, from Toni Morrison’s Sula, of whom Morrison writes, “Like any artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”
Death in Her Hands becomes Vesta’s canvas, her art form, and in conjuring Magda, Vesta engages in, and surpasses, Walter in his own field, epistemology. Epistemology examines the nature and the acquisition of knowledge—not just what we know, but how we know what we know. This is, in its own way, exactly what Vesta, and Moshfegh, attempt to determine.
In an interview with the New York Times, Moshfegh referred to Death in Her Hands as “a loneliness story”. “I hope,” she said, “that when people read this book, they’re not like, ‘Oh God, it’s another Ottessa book about this woman in isolation.'” Of course, it is another Ottessa book about a woman in isolation. Scheduled for an April 2020 release but delayed until June because of the coronavirus, Death in Her Hands arrived exactly when readers had spent the better part of their year distancing.
But we should also heed Moshfegh. It’s not just a story about a woman in isolation. It will be tempting for many readers to seeDeath in Her Hands as a lonely woman’s descent into madness, or to read Vesta as “a narrator whose unreliability is well earned”, as the publisher’s blurb instructs. In asking which parts of our lives take place inside of our heads—our inaction—versus in our hands—our actions—Moshfegh presents an unreliable narrator. But we should not focus on the unreliable part. We should focus on the word narrator. Using the note about Magda, Vesta is able, after being denied the opportunity for her whole life, to create a story about a woman who, much like herself, was silenced.
In its stripped-down prose and story, Moshfegh offers not a poetic experience, but a noetic one. We are given an almost mystical view into Vesta’s mind. When Vesta finds the note, she holds a woman’s death in her hands. When we read Moshfegh’s book, we hold a woman’s life.
Photo by ©Jake Belcher courtesy of Penguin Press