When I picked up Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection, Homesick for Another World, I thought it was science fiction. And why not? There’s a flying saucer right there on the cover. But anyone familiar with Moshfegh’s oeuvre (and she is the caliber of writer for whom I’m not using that word ironically) can tell you that she doesn’t need to imagine impossible science to find the unreal. She finds weirdness and strangeness in the contradictions that occur out-of-sight every day. Ironically, I didn’t expect her latest novel, Death in Her Hands, to belong to any genre besides satire when I preordered it, but it turns to be a mystery novel. Or at least, a mystery novel that takes place pretty much in the imagination of one of the characters, giving readers a window into the time spent in one’s own mind needed to commit, or solve, murder.
Seventy-two-year-old Vesta Gul and her dog Charlie find a note in the woods near her home that reads, “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” And Vesta’s mind goes off to the races. She populates Magda’s story with a killer, a personality and description for the victim, and soon Vesta’s forway into mystery begins to creep into her reality. Moshfegh’s trademark vortex of irony and introspection works that old familiar magic as Vesta lives in her small, rural town but remains apart from it in her mind. Vesta, who adopted a dog and moved to a former Girl Scout camp in the middle of the woods, considers the industrial hamlet she lives near and its blue collar inhabitant well beneath, but as she tries to connect with another human being (albeit only a name on a scrap of paper) she becomes more and more self-conscious of her own solitude. She grieves a philandering, condescending husband by adopting a dog, Charlie, on whom she dotes. She feeds him human food, but not only table scraps, at one point she roasts a chicken especially for Charlie. Vesta names the murderer Blake, solely because she associates it with youth and she desperately wants to villainize the youths who stand in natural conflict with her aged self. However, as she begins to believe that prowlers steal seeds from her garden and surveil her home, Vesta begins to even lose her trust in faithful Charlie.
Such breakdowns are the lynchpin of most Moshfegh novels – readers who recall My Year of Rest and Relaxation will especially recognize the technique of breakdown in slow motion. However, a repeated technique is frequently a mastered one. While Vesta’s breakdown also occurs spurred on by grief, it also represents that old image of King Lear raging against the storms of life. (And, like in that old country song, it occurs in the middle of the woods with nothing but a hound dog for company.) Age seems to be the final stand that separates this particular Moshfeghian from the world of the somehow sane and connectable. Like a person repeating himself without realizing it, Vesta’s murder mystery contains one too many flashbacks to adopting and caring for Charlie to really elicit any emotion other than an eyeroll when the dog disappears. However, this novel seems to know when its time to leave the party, and Vesta’s machinations gracefully glide to a halt in less than 300 pages.
A relatively short read, it’s every bit as dense as its woody setting, filled with complicated emotional thorns for contrary, persnickety Vesta Gul. At its barest level, Death in Her Hands takes a hard look at the absurdity of oceans of popular whodunits replete with spry old-timers and their quirky animal sidekicks. I’m clearly a fan of the author, and those new to her work might have less patience for the psychological drama than I, but I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while, and my expectations have been exceeded.
Page count: 272
Favorite quote: “I pictured their mindspace crawling with headless rats, spewing blood, white flashing neck bones, severed heads gnawing at dead headless bodies.”