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Death in Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh

September 7, 2020

If I’d known that reading Death in Her Hands, by Otessa Moshfegh, was like reading The Dinner by Herman Koch, with a repugnant narrator turning over the nasty contents of her little mind, I would have saved the book for a time when I was feeling particularly misanthropic. Reading it at the beginning of September 2020–in what already seems an endless isolation during a global pandemic, during a week of revelations about what our “commander in chief” really thinks of the people who have fought, suffered, and died for their country, and after the last three years of listening to the president and his cronies spewing nastiness almost every time they open their mouths–was just further demoralizing. Who is in need of further demoralizing right now? My friend who likes the book said she was “terrified,” but I didn’t care about any of the characters enough to be terrified for anyone except maybe the poor dog, who was doomed from the start.

It’s a trope that if a character kicks a puppy, you know that character is bad. So you know from the very beginning of Death in Her Hands that Vesta, the main character, is a very bad woman indeed because she tells the story of how she mistreats a puppy. She names him Charlie and it’s clear that he is terrified: “I’d wrapped him in that blanket and held him like a newborn baby in my arms that first night….He’d cried and cried….And a few months later—how fast he’d grown!—I took him out for a walk and he pulled and tugged and broke loose.” Even though Vesta expresses the conventional things to say about a pet, like “what would I have done without Charlie….I had run after him, of course,” she doesn’t actually run after him, saying that she “couldn’t bring myself to step over the sharp metal guardrail that he had leapt over so effortlessly. Even at that early hour, with just a car or two passing slowly on the ice, it seemed too dangerous to step foot on the freeway blacktop.” The dog does come back to her later, carrying a “dead bird—a meadowlark—softly between his fangs.” She has created a monster.

Vesta creates a big mystery about a note she claims to have found in the woods saying “here is her dead body,” although there is no body. It’s clear that the mystery is supposed to comment on both the dead end Vesta’s own life has turned out to be and the way a mystery novel is created. Neither of those things were particularly interesting, as Vesta herself does not seem to be interesting to any of the other characters in the novel. The general reaction to her, which she relates to the reader, is that “they didn’t like me.”

The insidiousness of Vesta’s point of view is apparent in what she says about books, since a reader might be expected to begin to agree and will then be pulled up short by Vesta’s viciousness, even when another person asks her to calm down:

“I liked books. Books were quiet. They wouldn’t scream in my face or get offended if I gave up on them. If I didn’t like what I read, I could throw the book across the room. I could burn it in my fireplace. I could rip out the pages and use them to blow my nose, or in the bathroom. I never did any of that, of course—most of the books I read came from the library. When I didn’t like something, I just shut the book and put it on the table by the door, spine facing the wall so that I wouldn’t have to look at it again. There was great satisfaction in shoving a bad book through the return slot and hearing it splat against the other books in the bin on the other side of the librarian’s desk. ‘You can just hand that to me,’ the librarian said. Oh no, I liked to shove it through. It made me feel powerful.”

Vesta imagines nasty things about other people because she thinks everyone must be like she is. She claims to feel pity for the women she sees grocery shopping, “these dull heifers roaming the Save-Rite, these sad mothers with nothing to do but eat and fold laundry with tiny, stubby fingers ticking out of their huge bloated hands. Their lives must feel like such ineffectual blither blather. Did they even think things to themselves? Why did they look so idiotic, like domesticated animals, chewing their cud until the slaughter, half asleep? I had to feel sorry for those women, imagining each of them strangled and bludgeoned deep in my birch woods.”

God save us all from the pity of a woman like Vesta.

A widow, Vesta does seem to have been terrorized by a husband who wouldn’t let her show emotion, slept with his female students, and “once beat a rat to death with a hammer.” She describes the “nights he’d come home, and I’d have his dinner heated in the oven, and I’d have the lights in the den so lovely and comfortable, and I’d be reading on the couch, and he’d simply walk past, drop his coat on the back of the couch, nearly hitting me on the head. Not ‘good evening, Vesta,’ or ‘How are you?’ Nothing. Later, in bed, he’d groan and complain about a student or a colleague or some paper that was due, as though his work were so important and he was so put upon by the trivialities of life. He had no idea of the trivialities of life. Early on in our marriage, he had passed those all onto me. I don’t think he’d been to a grocery store for thirty years by the time he died.”

But knowing that she was married to a horrible man doesn’t make me sympathize with Vesta.

The whole point of this fiction is that if you get fooled into sympathizing with Vesta for even a moment you’re on the way to becoming as horrible as she is. The novel itself is trying to gaslight its own reader; if you keep thinking that maybe Vesta isn’t actually as horrible as she seems, if you keep trying to give her a pass for behavior that makes you uncomfortable, then before you know it, you are covered in her nastiness as much as her poor dog was covered in shit and if you stick with her, as he did, you’ll suffer the same fate.

Have you ever gotten sucked into a relationship with a terrible person because you gave them a pass for some little things at first, before you found out more about what they were really like?

24 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2020 3:21 am

    In answer to your last question – yes, very definitely. It took me 16 months to extricate myself. However, it was a lesson well learnt. As for the book, the moment you mentioned the “doomed dog” I knew this one was not for me.

    • September 7, 2020 9:39 am

      The “kick the puppy” trope is an early warning about this novel.
      I can almost admire the way the novel, like a person, tries to fool you about how horrible Vesta can be, all the while giving you hints like that no one who meets her can stand her.

    • September 8, 2020 5:27 pm

      Same re: the doomed dog! I already knew it was a pass when you said it was generally demoralizing, but the doomed dog cemented my desire to shove this book through my mental return slot without even cracking the spine 😒

      • September 8, 2020 5:32 pm

        Yeah, the part of the story about the dog is really bad. It’s not told in order, but the cruelty becomes obvious really quickly.

        • September 8, 2020 5:46 pm

          I’ve only ever read one story involving animal abuse, and it was Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath. It’s middle grade and from the animals’ p.o.v., and you can tell there’s a happy ending coming, so that’s what kept me going (besides the mythic/folkloric elements). The villain was also just sympathetic enough that you understand why he’s so messed up, but he still gets a very deserved comeuppance.

  2. September 7, 2020 6:03 am

    I read fiction to live virtual lives. This doesn’t sound like one I’d either enjoy or benefit from, but go right ahead.

    As I get older, I find myself remembering my mother’s dictum that you don’t need to eat garbage when there is good food available, and you haven’t given me a good reason to read this one – I’m curious why you persisted. And I’m not even a dog person!

    I had the same reaction when I forced myself to read Pulitzer-Prize awarded A confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole – Chapter 1: Life is too short to spend it with gross people. It did what it intended – draw you in to a horrible character – and that’s when I bailed. Can’t read Lolita, either.

    I guess I’m a wuss, but I can’t get them out of my mind, and I don’t want them there. Thanks for the warning?

    • September 7, 2020 9:41 am

      I persisting reading the novel because a friend of mine recommended it and I had to see what it was all about.
      I was interested in A Confederacy of Dunces and love the way the novelist plays with readers in Lolita. I don’t think this novel is on that level.

      • September 7, 2020 12:16 pm

        Recommendation from friends do supersede other ways of getting information on books you might like.

        I forget, because in real life I have no contact with other readers.

        Which is odd, but we’re really in lockdown – had a new staff case this past week – and I rarely leave the apartment except for a twice-weekly half-hour socially distanced in the pool (3 people at a time – and the other two are usually swimming laps).

        Weird year. And I’m having trouble focusing, even on what you’d think would help, stories.

        • September 7, 2020 12:37 pm

          I’m not seeing many people in person either, although I’m supervising a student staff of fifty and teaching a class of twenty using email and google meet. The book recommendation came from a friend who lives in a suburb of NYC but talks to me on email and social media!

          • September 7, 2020 1:25 pm

            What would we have done during the pandemic without the internet? The most terrifying part of the 1918 flu must have been having to wait for information to be published or put on the radio.

  3. September 7, 2020 8:34 am

    I think the terrifying part is how Vesta is being sucked into mental illness before our eyes. It’s not so much that she’s a terrible person, but more that she had been in abusive relationships that triggered her insidious decline.

    • September 7, 2020 9:36 am

      Hmm. So you identify with Vesta enough to be terrified of meeting a similar fate?
      I think it’s a flaw in the way the novel is set up that most readers won’t identify with the narrator.
      I don’t accept the “abusive relationships triggered her decline” line of thinking. Just because there’s a reason for a character to become terrible doesn’t mean that we can sympathize with her, unless there’s a bigger market than I imagine consisting of abused housewives.

      • magpiemusing permalink
        September 7, 2020 3:44 pm

        No, I can’t explain the terror – and it certainly wasn’t because I was thinking I’d meet a similar fate. It was oddly visceral though. I remember the same terror at reading The Crying Of Lot 49 – and I have no idea why (and I can’t remember a thing about that book).

        Why do you feel it’s important to sympathize with or identify with the narrator? I didn’t feel that way here – and there are plenty of books/plays/TV show/movies where you hate everyone but it’s still a good book/play/movie. Have you seen Succession? It’s delicious TV and you hate ALL OF THEM.

        • September 7, 2020 4:09 pm

          If a reader doesn’t sympathize with or identify with someone in the story, how does that reader get interested?
          Are there really “plenty” of books, plays, tv shows and movies like this? I think there have been more lately. The two tv shows like this that I have watched and grew to think were funny were Arrested Development, because it had some clever jokes that built up over time, and Schitt’s Creek, because in the end the characters grew a little bit and you could actually feel something for them.
          My daughter likes It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but I don’t find that kind of meanness “delicious” at all.
          It may just be that it’s a style I don’t care for unless it’s done really well.

  4. September 7, 2020 11:38 am

    WELL THIS SOUNDS GRIM. I’ve never felt that Ottessa Moshfegh’s books would be for me, and reading this confirms it, hahhahaha. I do think it’s an interesting project though! I was talking to my sister recently about how strong the drive is to identify with the main character of anything, because we’re so used to doing it that way — every time I listen to the Jim Croce song “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” I kinda want Leroy to win the fight even though like, he’s not a good dude! He’s not a good dude and he’s not in the right! COME ON JENNY.

    • September 7, 2020 4:21 pm

      It’s not just that we’re used to identifying with the main character, it’s that a reader should have a reasonable expectation that a novelist will offer a perspective that reveals something about the situation, the narrator, or the other characters. Sometimes we do identify with characters who are not just bad but so bad you have to say it twice, like Leroy Brown who was “the baddest man in the whole damn town” because it’s a picture of a place and a time period. Btw, I find one section of road in between Iowa and Ohio very singable, what with Joliet (the Blues Brothers) the south side of Chicago (Jim Croce) and then Gary, Indiana (the Music Man).

  5. September 7, 2020 2:10 pm

    I wonder if Moshfegh must like writing unlikeable narrators? I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation in April and that narrator, while not as odious as this one sounds, was a terrible person. But the book was well written and I had to keep reading because I had to know how it all ended. Still, I think I will skip this one because I need things a little less depressing these days for the sake of my mental health.

    • September 7, 2020 4:23 pm

      That’s how I felt, that maybe I’d have been more intrigued by the way this story is told if I weren’t already feeling like I was being gaslighted at a national level.

  6. September 7, 2020 2:20 pm

    Blech. Sounds awful.

    The indication about the MC slipping into mental illness reminds me of The Queen of the Tambourine by Jane Gardam. Except there I think Gardam succeeded (brilliantly) at making a woman sympathetic who from the outside could just seem irritating and repellent. I think I’ll go reread that instead.

    Have I gotten into a relationship with such a horrible person by giving them a pass for little things at first? Not a personal relationship, but a work relationship (a boss/supervisor). It was absolutely awful, not least because I did let things pass in the beginning, that in retrospect I should have seen as danger signs and incidents of abuse (sexual harrassment, among other things). A lot of harm was caused down the road, and I felt responsible though it was not directly my fault. I also felt like a coward for being scared of him. I’m more prepared now to deal with such a person but I hope I don’t have to.

    • September 7, 2020 4:29 pm

      Oh! Yes I do particularly like novels about women who seem irritating from the outside but when you get access to their inner thoughts you like them despite their lack of social graces, like Olive Kitteridge.
      I’m sure you’re not alone in giving someone at work a pass for little things at first. I did that in one of my first jobs, and it turned out okay–there were danger signs but I ignored them and bigger danger never materialized (as far as I know; maybe I allowed behavior that affected someone else after me, though). I think many women have been there. Some of us escaped more unscathed than others.

  7. September 8, 2020 4:20 pm

    Thanks for this review – I know this book isn’t for me! I’m not averse to an unlikeable narrator but at this time I can’t stomach this level of nastiness and cruelty in fiction.

    • September 8, 2020 4:22 pm

      That’s how I feel, too. Right now is not the time.

  8. September 13, 2020 3:35 pm

    A great, honest review. I feel like I won’t be able to identify with Vesta either, and I generally dislike books that have unsympathetic characters (especially when the intention of the author was to provide even some sympathy). It seems like the author wanted to produce in a reader one thing but the effect was the opposite.

    • September 13, 2020 3:50 pm

      I do think that my friend who recommended the book to me felt the effect the author wanted to produce; she was afraid for the narrator. What I know about writing is that this author shouldn’t have given a reader like me so much room to dislike (rather than be afraid for) her narrator.

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