The note found by elderly widow Vesta Gul in the birch woods near her cabin is just 19 words long.
“Her name was Magda,” it reads. “Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”
That may not seem like much. But it’s enough to send the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, “Death in Her Hands,” down a rabbit hole of suspicion, conjecture and fantasy for more than 250 pages. Contributing to the mystery surrounding Magda’s ostensible “murder” is the fact that there’s no body to be seen anywhere nearby and no indication of who the note-writer is.
But that doesn’t stop Vesta from dreaming up wildly intricate and contradictory scenarios as to what happened to Magda and why. Vesta’s protean musings on the details of Magda’s death also spiral her back into memories of her own late husband, Walter, and the ways in which he distorted her sense of self.
The resulting novel, “Death in Her Hands,” is a strange blend of tour de force and dead-end narrative. One of the first things Vesta asks herself as she starts to investigate Magda’s death is “Was futility a subject worth exploring?”
That question gives fair warning to readers as to the nature of the realm they’re about to enter.
“Death in Her Hands” continues the exploration of extreme interiority that Moshfegh pursued in her previous novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” In “Year,” a recently orphaned young heiress retreats to her apartment to “sleep all day and become a whole new person.” Helping her get through her self-imposed ordeal are a best friend whom she treats abusively and a psychiatrist who gives her both “terrible advice” and “an impressive library of psychopharmaceuticals.”
“Year” served up a darkly perverse humor as its self-absorbed heroine attempted to shut out the world around her. Seventy-two-year-old Vesta is a marginally more sympathetic character than the narrator of “Year.” But she’s every bit as addled.
Recently widowed, she has moved with her beloved dog Charlie from the city where she lived with her husband to a rural part of the country where she has purchased a 12-acre lakeside property that used to be a Girl Scout camp.
“I had no friends,” she says. “I didn’t even have a phone.”
The four-line note about Magda’s murder, she adds, is “as close as I’d gotten to a social call in a long time.” But who needs friends or a phone when you have a whole teeming paranoiac world zipping around inside your head?
Certainly nothing in the nearby town of Bethsmane interests her. The local citizens, she sneers, are “lamebrained” and obscenely obese. The mysterious and quite possibly nonexistent Magda exerts a lot more appeal. Guided by an ever-mutating anti-logic, Vesta cooks up increasingly absurd theories about her.
“Magda’s past was mine to discover and know,” she says. “All I had to do was think.”
What would have happened to Magda, she speculates, if she’d stayed in her native Belarus (a country of origin that Vesta pulls out of thin air)? Might she have joined the Bolshoi Ballet? What would her stance on abortion be? Just how “nasty” might her jokes get?
The traits Vesta attributes to this specter in her mind range from fanciful to crass to soulful to spiteful to absurd. Indeed, they’re so arbitrary that it’s not a great surprise when, halfway through the novel, Vesta — for a time at least — becomes Magda.
“Death in Her Hands” feels like fiction premised on an absence of experience, constrained by a character who has no pastimes or human connections to occupy her — at least in the present. Her late husband, however, has an increasingly objectionable presence in her mind. The more she thinks about Walter, the unhappier she is with him.
“I didn’t want Walter in my mindspace anymore,” she says. “I wanted to know things on my own.”
The thing she most wants to know, of course, is Magda. “What a strange responsibility it was,” Vesta marvels, “to hold someone’s death in your hands.”
Moshfegh’s powers of invention, as Vesta careers from one supposition to the next, seem inexhaustible. “If there are infinite meanings,” Vesta acknowledges, “there is no meaning.”
With so many possibilities at play in Vesta’s mind, perhaps it’s inevitable that none of them sticks.
“What a dumb, cruel world,” Vesta reflects. “And yet it didn’t seem to be a real world.”
For readers who can tolerate that much unresolved unreality in their fiction, “Death in Her Hands” may be just the ticket. And even if you have your doubts about the novel, it’s an odd enough enterprise to make you glad that it exists.
“Death in Her Hands” by Ottessa Moshfegh, Penguin Press, 259 pp., $27