What good are likeable characters? This is what Ottessa Moshfegh asks as she fills her novels with figures who are at the very least vain and irritating, and at the worst totally repugnant.
Over the course of three full-length novels (she has also published the novella McGlue and the short-story collection Homesick for Another World), the American author has dug deep into the psyches of women who, cast out from society, at first elicit a certain degree of sympathy in the reader – that is, until their loathsome personalities become clear. They are not characters to idolise or fawn over, but there is an unspoken fascination in those we find abhorrent and Moshfegh writes these women with wit and intrigue, treading a fine line between shocking realism and the absurd.
The protagonist of Eileen (2015) is a loner. Caring for her verbally abusive, alcoholic father and working in a correctional facility for boys, she has a life which is easily pitied. Her internal monologue uncovers her jealousy, scorn and growing psychosis. “I looked so boring, lifeless, immune and unaffected, but in truth I was always furious, seething, my thoughts racing, my mind like a killer’s,” she admits.
The unnamed narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) chooses to put herself into a chemical hibernation for a year. She is stubborn and self-obsessed while infinitely bored of herself, and nasty to her supposed best friend, whose photo she keeps tucked in the corner of a mirror in her living room “as a reminder of how little I enjoyed her company if I felt like calling her later while I was under the influence”.
Vesta Gul, the 72-year-old narrator of Death in Her Hands, at first just seems a little eccentric. She only cooks food that both she and her beloved dog, Charlie, will enjoy – stews, roasts, gravy. When she goes to the library to return books, she ignores the librarian and finds “great satisfaction in shoving a bad book through the return slot and hearing it splat against the other books… It made me feel powerful”.
Soon, her strange callousness emerges. The women she sees traipsing the aisles of the local supermarket are as “big as cows”, she thinks, “heifers… Their lives must feel like such ineffectual blither blather. Did they even think things to themselves?” She understands “manipulative” to be a “strong positive personality trait”.
The novel, pitched as a “new kind of murder mystery”, opens with Vesta walking Charlie in the woods, where she finds a note on the ground. It reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” She decides not to alert the authorities but to set off on a mission to discover who is responsible for Magda’s supposed death.
But Vesta gets carried away with imaginary stories which, in her mind, come to be true. The writer of the note, she decides, is a teenage boy she names Blake, “sneaky and a bit dumb”. She constructs detailed personas for him and his mother, and soon enough everyone she encounters becomes a character in her murder mystery.
It is with these contortions of Vesta’s reality that Moshfegh’s knowingness becomes heavy and obvious. The novel tries to play on the “art” of writing a murder mystery – “Mystery was an artless genre,” Vesta thinks – but the attempts at metatextuality feel contrived when the reasons for Vesta’s behaviour are far more complicated.
Grief, we come to realise, is the largest contributing factor not only to Vesta’s state of mind, but to her personality. Her husband, Walter, died of cancer. But hers is not a straightforward mourning. As she acts out her mission, little details from her relationship with Walter slip into her narrative: he forbade her from using contraceptive pills, saying “they sapped a woman’s integrity”. She didn’t have friends lest she made Walter feel she was “conspiring against him”. These horrifying details are noted in typical Moshfegh style – plain, straightforward sentences which she rarely lingers over.
Left to start a new life alone after existing within the confines of abuse for so long, Vesta is only beginning to understand her dead husband as her “captor”. His lovelessness has trained her to see the worst in everyone, including herself.
As she did with her earlier protagonists, whose coarseness can be traced back to family deaths and childhood hardships, in Death in Her Hands Moshfegh acknowledges that repulsion lives and breathes in people. She asks us to sit with it, to follow it along its strange and unruly course, to go some way to understanding it.
Death in Her Hands
Vintage, 272pp, £14.99