You know how the holy grail of so-called commercial sector publishing is the almighty High Concept – what if, like, HE SEES DEAD PEOPLE? What if women can only speak ONE HUNDRED WORDS A DAY? What if HE WROTE HER A LETTER EVERY MONTH FOR A YEAR TO BE OPENED ONLY AFTER HE’S DEAD?!? And literary fiction is kind of – allegedly – exempt from this, not quite so dependent on a hook, because it’s, broadly speaking, concerned with a more nuanced examination of the human condition, etc, etc? Well, Ottessa Moshfegh is parked at the intersection of that particular Venn diagram with her handbrake firmly engaged. While My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a very offbeat and thought-provoking (and medically inadvisable) take-down of consumerism and productivity, it spins off from a simple conceit: what if somebody drugged the shit out of themselves and (literally) slept their way to a life-reset? Likewise, Death on Her Hands starts from a really basic premise – what would you do if you found a note to go with a dead body, but there’s no dead body there? – and spirals gradually out from there into an apparently meandering, but actually incredibly tightly constructed look at loneliness and despair and misogyny and fear. The plot, that is, is slight, but the theme and its explication in character and setting are mighty.
Vesta Gul is a widow in her seventies, lately arrived in the remote impoverished community of Levant after a life spent in a university town with her husband, Walter – an emotionally-distant, overly-critical, unfaithful and patronising academic. Vesta’s aim for the foreseeable is a quiet life doing whatever she wants on her own schedule, and her wants are few. She’s out for a walk with her dog, Charlie, when she finds a note announcing the death of Magda (but no body or further clues in sight) and protesting the innocence of the writer of the note itself. Vesta is intrigued and pockets the note; later, she gets to wondering who wrote it, whether or not it’s a hoax, and who Magda herself might be (or might have been). She concocts a likely cast for the imagined crime: Blake, the note-writer and young admirer of Magda, herself an illegal immigrant from Belarus; Ghod, her murderer; Leo, her lover; Henry, Ghod’s creepy collaborator. So far, so fantastical – but aspects of Vesta’s narrative start to appear in her real life, weird things begin happening, and quite soon the boundaries between reality, speculation, fiction, memory and nightmare grow worryingly undefined. In that sense it’s not unlike the latter stages of her most recent novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which also plays with liminal zones of consciousness and, in Freudian terms, the return of the repressed; here, though, the effect is exponentially creepier. Moshfegh gestures towards a good horror game: we’ve got all the tropes both of a slasher movie (the woods, a lake, a deserted island, dark shadows slipping past, a vanished body, an isolated community) and a murder mystery (a classic pretty young victim and helpless old lady victim-in-waiting; an innocent dog; a Miss Marple figure in Vesta herself). But she doesn’t actually play these games: Vesta’s not helpless, we don’t know if Magda is real, various aspects of the setting are played as red herrings. She – Moshfegh – doesn’t replicate these things by way of entertainment; she draws our attention to them and then does something else. We’ve even got a neighbouring family preparing their own murder mystery game, hyping up all the elements that are freaking Vesta out: come on, says Moshfegh, do you think I’m that obvious? Vesta’s given a book by this family on how to deal with death; she tosses it out. She’s not a victim – in fact, she’s reclaiming herself from the victimhood that was her long, unhappy marriage. Perhaps, the text suggests, she’s going mad? Well, then we’ve got to ask ourselves, is that so bad? What’s reality done for her?
The book, too, is exploring its own construction: when we invent characters, we invest them with verisimilitude, don’t we, just as Vesta invents Magda and Ghod and Blake? But Vesta herself is a character – we’re reading a book. If we, then, can grow invested in Vesta’s future, can’t Vesta equally invest herself in Magda’s well-being? If we discount her credibility as a result – if we write her off as delusional – aren’t we, too, delusional to care about Vesta? To grant her any credence? To emotionally invest ourselves in her development to the extent of reading onwards? Vesta describes her husband – derisively – as an epistemologist, or one who’s philosophically concerned with knowledge (what we can know, how we can know it); in this book, though, Moshfegh is asking us what fiction – the invention of characters and their doings – enables us to know. Or: what knowledge can be produced by (the writer) dreaming up a storyline and (the reader) following it through to an end? For Vesta, that dream results in greater self-knowledge; by inventing and investing in Magda, she comes to know herself, to confront the way her life has developed, the wastages and losses she has accrued by virtue of her marriage to Walter. For us, our investing in Vesta herself – or in any other fictional life-story – might make us cast an eye back over our own lives. And if Magda – if Vesta – isn’t real? Well: does it matter?
Any Cop?: A low-key story that takes a brilliantly spooky dark turn and will get you thinking.