Format: 259 pp., hardcover with dust jacket; Size: 8.25” × 10.25”; Price: $27.00; Publisher: Penguin Press; Number of people Vesta speaks aloud to: six, including her dog Charlie and her dead husband; Number of wine corks Vesta breaks: innumerable; Other books by the author: Eileen, My Year of Rest and Relaxation; Representative Passage: “It seemed to me a cruel message: Yes, yes, be alive, make your mess, but when you die, leave not a trace. Sweep up evidence of your existence. Reminders will only trouble those who live on. They’ll have to waste their own lives cleaning up yours.”
Central Question: Where does grief end and life begin?
“Everything in the world begins with a yes,” starts Clarice Lispector’s thin slice of a novel, Hour of the Star (1977), whose ugly, sickly female protagonist, Macabéa, leads a life flattened by poverty and bad luck. In contrast, we could say that everything in Ottessa Moshfegh’s world begins with characters who say “No.” Like Lispector’s fiction, Moshfegh’s is driven by psychologically complex characters whose desperation is disguised as disgust with the perceived provincialism of the people around them. The same is true of Vesta Gul, the protagonist of Moshfegh’s latest novel, Death in Her Hands. Vesta, a Hungarian immigrant and older woman whose life has been intensely sheltered, is controlled first by her stern and fearful parents, then her paternalistic professor husband Walter. In the wake of Walter’s death, though, her life is transformed. She begins to molt out of the life he cocooned her in, and regresses into a vision of herself she was never allowed to have: that of a sulking teenager who hates everyone but her dog, a girl bent on self-destruction, sloughing off any criticism that she doesn’t make herself.
In general, Moshfegh’s characters are each in the process of transcending their current circumstances the same way stink rises from a dead animal: their transformation is more like putrefaction than anything else. Moshfegh’s fiction focuses on the lives of individuals who are trapped in the aftermaths of traumatic events—death, abuse, mental illness, and sometimes all three. These are characters who slump through the world as reluctant survivors. Her unsentimental approach liberates these characters’ frailties as they attempt to liberate themselves.
Of course, Moshfegh’s characters are women, and centering feminine disaffection is not just a way of reorienting the novel form towards a pseudo-feminist version of an antihero’s journey. Moshfegh’s antiheroes indulge in parasitic relationships with the world; the nightmare is an extension of their damaged psyches, a force internalized from teenage years to adulthood. If America is a Prozac Nation, mental illness is no longer something to be mourned but rather a crucial and inescapable hallmark. Moshfegh’s dystopia comes from within; the outside world is just a foil. In her fiction, girls own the void.
It’s that void that Vesta has lived on the edge of and has avoided tipping into for most of her life. And by some virtue, she’s already prepared: Vesta wore all black her entire life, saying, “I didn’t have to change for death. It was always there. I’d been dressed for [Walter’s] funeral from the day we met.” Hostile and exhausted, Vesta oscillates between mourning Walter and rejecting the way he described her. That rejection changes the way she describes herself. Mournful, she abandons their shared home for a small wooded town named Levant where she takes up residence in a former Girl Scout compound with her dog Charlie. The compound —which locals continuously remind her used to be theirs—sits in the thicketed woods outside Levant’s downtown. It’s there that she and Charlie find a note that twists her life into an unrecognizable shape: “Her name was Magda,”reads the note. “Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” The note sends Vesta spiraling out of her life’s confines as she becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of Magda’s death. Vesta grieves less for her husband’s absence than she does the identity she kept while she was married. “I’d been deprived of so much by falling in love with my husband,” thinks Vesta, who married Walter when she was a college student. “I’d been so pretty once. And now I was ruined, an old lady with a mouth full of dirt.” Slowly, she begins to discard reminders of her dead husband: she unceremoniously dumps his ashes in the nearby lake, enjoys the foods he chastised her for eating, then sets out to clear his voice—“a nosy adversary”—from what she calls her “mindspace.”
Suddenly independent, Vesta surveys the gaping expanse her husband’s death ripped open and sees only Magda. She imagines Magda’s life in an attempt to construct a kind of ancestor, one who can guide her to an entirely new framework for her life. In her new town and home, where she is free of Walter and the life he trapped her in, Vesta turns her energy to the supposed ruin of a girl she’s never met rather than grieving her husband. The preoccupation gives Vesta permission to become feral, unhinged—free. “I was a coward for living as I did. But never more, I resolved. I would persist despite my fear, despite my innocence, my depravity, my skillful denial of all that had pained me.” Vesta’s obsession with Magda is generative; it becomes a vessel for Vesta to reimagine herself in all the ways she wasn’t allowed or was too cowardly to be. “I loved her the way I loved the future,” says Vesta, whose future awaits her—if she can avoid fumbling it.
Magda, Magda, Magda. Vesta begins to see her everywhere: secret messages emerge from the woodwork of boring old Levant and fuel Vesta’s sloppy dossier, in which she describes Magda and her alleged killer in fevered detail. In comparison, the world Magda lives in is “dumb and cruel,” while Vesta’s was “placid and mellow.” The world Vesta fantasizes for Magda opens a new frontier of emotional exploration, allowing her to reassesses her life under Walter’s and her parents’ thumbs for the majority of her life. In a way, Magda is the teenager Vesta was never allowed to be and in Vesta’s mind the two become twinned spirits. In her mind Magda is perfect, scowling but powerful, restrained only by the simpletons of Levant who misunderstand her. She borrows this creation’s defiant confidence as a counterweight to the self-hating attitude she learned from Walter’s mistreatment. “Walter was always poking fun at my thinness, comparing me to other women around, at once humiliating me for being slight, bony, flat-chested, and them for being fleshy, big-bosomed hogs.” If Vesta’s disdain for herself is borrowed from Walter, her exaltation of Magda is the esteem she’s unaccustomed to giving herself. Meanwhile, Vesta re-appropriates her husband’s condescension to build an imagined case against the people of the small town of Levant, where wit was a “rare quality… where most people were blue collar and dull,” the type of place that would let a girl like Magda expire without any fanfare.
How easy it is to build a chrysalis around ourselves so as to hide ourselves from the crueler aspects of the world and to constantly live on the brink of our potential—or in Vesta’s case, a void so intimidating it takes a complete embrace of death to confront it. Vesta speeds headlong into self-destruction, splintering any shred of empathy or ethics she has left, dissolves into the dark of the woods and her abused, ignored psyche. Death in Her Hands acts as a third installment in Moshefegh’s tour of unlikeable women slouching toward self-destruction. In comparison to the past characters, Vesta is the matriarch—the full maturation of an archetype Moshefegh has been crafting throughout her novels. It’s uncertain how Moshfegh will reinvent her own wheel, but with the entrance of a crone into her cadre of misanthropes, this specific archetype seems complete.
It’s easy for us to fear or pity older women, especially those without partners. Moshfegh’s women are exhausted, disgusted, disgusting, and unappealing—characteristics that sadly still feel revolutionary in a culture that prefers redeemable heroes. Less tread is the world where post-menopausal women refuse to be triumphant, hate their dead husbands, and embrace paranoid misanthropy. Too often, women’s sins need to be sublimated, made palatable; even the narrator of Rest and Relaxation was redeemable only by virtue of her conventional hotness. (Moshfegh confessed that “when I started writing this book, I realized I had to give the reader something to fulfill a biological need to tolerate this character. If she was going to put the reader through all this shit, she had to look like Cindy Crawford.”) Death in Her Hands eschews sublimation and embraces a completely unpalatable character. If Vesta evokes pity in readers, it will not be because of Moshfegh’s portrayal; rather, readers will bring their own conceptions about how older women should live to bear on Vesta’s life. And if we find Vesta’s life shocking, it is only because we live in a world where serial rapists inhabit the highest offices in the land, and their victims are required to be perfect if they want to be heard—in other words, a world where crone literature still shocks us.