“The deep sleep I would soon enter required a completely blank canvas if I was to emerge from it fully renewed,” she says—and she recruits a pretentious young artist named Ping Xi to be her sleep “warden.” She gives him carte blanche to use her blacked-out body for his own work, so long as he leaves no trace of his presence in her home. (“There was to be no narrative that I could follow, no pieces for me to put together.”) When she finally awakens, she claims success: “There was majesty and grace in the pace of the swaying branches of the willows. … My sleep had worked.”
That we doubt her abrupt discovery of grandeur in the world seems to be Moshfegh’s intention: Even her drug-addled narrator, though she takes to rising with the sun and feeding squirrels in the park, doesn’t seem fully bought in. Her rhapsodizing is hollow and rote, like a parody of the self-help literature on opting out of our connected, capitalist world. Moshfegh is merciless when it comes to the vacuousness and self-seriousness of the art world, but making art is still the only path to redemption her narrator can see. It’s a profoundly grim punch line that art—though it briefly gives her a sense of hope—doesn’t save her from the void.
The epiphanies of Death in Her Hands are similarly double-edged, at once ridiculous and existentially charged. As Vesta attempts to solve the mystery, it’s not the “cozy whodunit” that unravels, but her own sanity—and the reader realizes that Vesta’s fate, not Magda’s, is at stake. Paranoid that someone is after her, Vesta scrounges among the crudest of genre-fiction tricks in what seems to be an attempt to assert control over her own story: She dons a midnight-black camouflage onesie and sets up booby traps in her home, like she’d “seen done once on a television show.” Vesta succeeds in engineering the sense of momentum she has long craved, but no plot device can grant her the agency she seeks—a problem not unlike the one the novel itself faces. In this pulpier companion to her previous book, Moshfegh strikes an uncanny balance between absurdity and urgency that makes for propulsive reading, all the while making a mockery of serious suspense.
For Moshfegh, who has said she started writing Death in Her Hands five years ago “to get [herself] onto the other side of an experience” of deep grief, crafting this meta-fictional mystery was purposeful work. Alone and adrift in San Francisco, she forced herself to write 1,000 words a day “until [she] reached the conclusion of something,” she recently told The New York Times. The result feels less ingeniously and cruelly playful than her fiction has been in the past. Still, Moshfegh’s gift for staring down darkness—for finding spiffy packages for awfulness—is rare and unexpectedly riveting. If art can’t reclaim maimed pasts, erase pointless ones, or promise better futures, a writer who keeps us listening to her alienated female narrators, intrigued by their fates, has managed a feat.
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is the deputy research chief at The Atlantic.