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Surface Levels

By Olya Makarova

Death in Her Hands

Otessa Moshfegh, Penguin, 2020


Kate Zambreno, Riverhead Books, 2020

Kate Zambreno writes in her forthcoming novel Drifts: ‘All we can do is wonder over the imaginary solitude of others, what others do when they are alone, how they deal with the vastness and ephemerality of the day, which I think is for me increasingly the meaning of and crisis of art.’ This crisis is central to both the form and ethics of the novel: how an author treats the solitude of others, whether considering humanity at large or simply exploring the state of the individual self, can often define a work. Both Zambreno and Ottessa Moshfegh have penned new novels, to be released this spring, that forefront this question. Coincidentally, at the core of both – Zambreno’s Drifts and Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands – lies not a relationship between two people, but the relationship between a woman and her dog. This use of the non-human ‘other’ allows them to reflect questions of selfhood—what does it mean to be a rational animal? —onto the focal relationship of their narratives. Zambreno compensates for the inexpressibility of the woman/dog relationship by adopting a collaged style, digressing into the lives of authors and artists she admires. Rilke, Kafka, and Wittgenstein all feel as central, and as remote, as the narrator herself. There is a sense that Zambreno is obscuring as much as she reveals, seeking intellectual and aesthetic connections between the narrators and her looming predecessors, yet refusing to construct any meaningful symbolism. Rather, descriptions and quotes are strewn about her literary landscape. Zambreno picks them up and muses, then sets them down once more, not giving any concrete response to the web of references she presents. Throughout the novel, language is seen to be unable to convey anything meaningful. Zambreno records conversations with friends, their advice and interpretations of her life, her writing. But her emotional response remains oblique. She is either indifferent or resentful, achingly aware of her own problems in a way which leaves little room for her personal relationships. She records one conversation: ‘We talk about how much we’ve both been spending on skin care. For her, lipsticks and sheet masks. For me, an expensive deep blue balm for my pregnancy eczema that I smear on my face every night, a calming ritual’. Zambreno’s narrator revels in her own body, its dysfunctional thing-ness, as a form of enclosure. Her web of literary references seems to estrange her from emotional presence, especially visible in the interactions with her husband. They often communicate solely through the medium of highbrow metaphor: ‘The entire time we were looking at the books, laid out on a dining table like a banquet, John kept on whispering in my ear that he felt he was in César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter’. Their shared poetic sensibility is emphasised at the expense of any fleshed-out depiction of their relationship. John suggests interpretations of Durer, or they gaze at Vermeer paintings. This isn’t a critique. Zambreno knows precisely what she is doing, and that is constructing a novel of surfaces. She writes: ‘My problem is that I want to just revel in the objects, just be ravished by the surfaces of things.’ Drifts is a novel ideologically against interpretation, refusing to burrow down, to nestle into any comfortable meanings. In fact, only time that Zambreno does burrow down is in the physicality of the narrator. Central to the novel is her relationship with Genet, her terrier. The reference to Jean Genet—the great French novelist-playwright-essayist-activist—is consumed in the narrator’s overwhelming love and closeness with her dog. Zambreno confronts her reader with the physicality of picking up dog shit, of naked canine snuggling, of sharing a popsicle with Genet, with its fishy aftertaste of dog saliva. Such scenes become the emotional core of the novel, resuscitating it from the endless myopia of academic referentiality. In the focus upon woman and dog, the reader begins to suspect that what Zambreno murders is the self. The obsessive regurgitation of the protagonist’s worldly interests furnishes a sort of quilt, under which Zambreno the narrator lies contented, ensconced in the simple affection of being with her pet. She invokes Simone Weil, the 20th century mystic-philosopher who sought to eradicate the self, to escape into divine grace. Drifts depicts the impossibility of such a task, taking on the common postmodern topic of overwhelming life, bearing down on the soul at every turn – the late capitalist pressures of financial solvency and engagement with popular culture in a meaningful way. But she manages to depict such a struggle in a new light, where meaning resides outside of the cerebral, rational self, and instead in the most fundamental relationship in life: the self and the body. In this progress toward some form of meaning, Drifts represents a far more complex, interesting, and mature work than Zambreno’s most popular novel, Green Girl (2011). The protagonist of Green Girl is one in a long line of aimless beautiful young women, of the kind which is readily available in French new wave cinema and Jean Rhys novels. Like Drifts, Green Girl is painstakingly aware of this characterisation, and embraces the way she is forced to conform to a mould by society. The novel is a collage of assertions about this ‘Green Girl’ trope—perhaps more commonly known to us as the manic pixie dream girl—but does not manage to assemble anything fruitful out of its craftwork. Rather, author and protagonist both succumb to the angst of indeterminacy and just ‘scream. And scream. And scream’ and that is all we are left with, quite literally, at the novel’s end. But Drifts manages to depict the postmodern condition without resorting to the endless barrage of deconstruction in Green Girl, also found in giants of American postmodernism like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Zambreno continues the tradition of ‘frenzy’ found in such authors, a genre-marker which has been dubbed ‘hysterical realism’ by critic James Wood, but does not allow it to govern the core of Drifts, which lies within the physicality of the body itself. This physicality is less focalised in Death in Her Hands, Ottessa Moshfegh’s forthcoming novel. Moshfegh also places the relationship between a woman and her dog at centre of the novel, but perhaps in a more mundane way. The elderly protagonist, Vesta, has only her dog Charlie for a companion, and her existence is given meaning by her need to care for him. Unlike Zambreno’s narrator, Vesta is secluded; her life does not have work and yoga and a husband to keep her occupied. The dog becomes an excuse to establish a routine. Rather than exploring the physicality of the ageing body, Moshfegh places her attention on the effect of old age and isolation upon the mind: Vesta’s inner life defines the novel, as her imagination runs wild after uncovering a mysterious note alleging the death of a woman named ‘Magda’. Magda becomes a character within the novel as Vesta constructs a fiction around what Magda may have been like. The novel itself charts the process of creating a mystery; the creation of a girl who was killed—and yet for whose existence there is no evidence—who in turn reveals Vesta’s own character. Death in Her Hands has a near fantastical atmosphere despite its core of eerie solitude. It is a very strange novel – aside from the protagonist, its only main characters are fictional even within its own fictional world—but this doesn’t detract from its richness. Moshfegh retreats from the frenzy of city life that provided the backdrop to her last novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), and places Vesta in a remote rural wilderness. This allows her to tap into a common cultural fantasy—to isolate oneself from the overwhelming fanfare of life, to reject modernity and its corresponding anxieties—boredom, loneliness, and outsider identity. It is revealing that Zambreno’s character in Drifts is urged by her husband to retreat to a cabin upstate, where they can live in matrimonial bliss, but she cannot leave the city behind. She cannot confront her own interiority in such a vivid way. In contrast, Vesta is able to be alone because she is a formed being, she has lived out her life and come to terms with her own character, with all its faults. Such a feat is insurmountable in Drifts. Without giving anything away, the ending of Death in Her Hands is uncharacteristically ambiguous for an Ottessa Moshfegh novel. It represents a slight turn back toward the postmodern for Moshfegh, whose previous novels have had a more contained quality. Death in Her Hands is replete with meaning in the way that a folktale is: chains of causality are multiple and characters are undergoing constant transformation. Vesta is a relatively stable character, but we are made to doubt the veracity of her perceptions – almost immediately, with her impulse to craft fictions, but also more broadly by invoking the social perception of her as an old woman living in the woods with only her dog for company. Her enclosed existence gives us a strong impression of her instability, and correspondingly reveals the tenuous way in which our personal symbolism is constructed, that it must be validated by the perceptions of others. These exterior perceptions are absent in the novel, with only the instinctual reactions of Vesta’s dog as reinforcement for her reality. The novel’s conclusion, however, seems to assert that this validation does not matter, but only our own ability to cope with the reality we have constructed. Like her latest novel, Moshfegh’s first full-length work, Eileen, engages with the paranoia motif of the murder mystery genre. Eileen—which was nominated for the Booker and won the PEN/Hemingway of 2016—is in a way reminiscent of Jane Austen’s first completed novel Northanger Abbey. Unlike Northanger Abbey, however, the privileged white girl of Eileen is not over-imaginative; she is correct in thinking there are grand conspiracies at play. Yet when this is revealed to the reader we realise that such revelations are fruitless. There is no potential to solve the random evil and larger systemic injustice which brings about the crisis of the novel. Eileen herself acknowledges this in her retrospective narration, writing, ‘idealism without consequences is the pathetic dream of every spoiled brat’. Rather than an overwhelming search for some hidden meaning, she turns to surface in a simpler sense, embracing the potential of life and learning to ‘care for people deeply’. This is not a call to reject symbolism, however, but merely to hold it in proportion, something which is difficult to do in an age of over-determinacy. Death in Her Hands hence represents a return to the conclusion of Eileen, reiterating the importance of symbolism, but also taking the final step of rejecting notions of realism. Reality is strange and alienating in Death in Her Hands, whereas it is just bleak in Eileen. Moshfegh is uninterested in the realism of ‘the imaginary solitude of others’ en masse. Her novels are focused upon the individual self as a creative space; the lives of others are irrelevant. As a result, her protagonists are usually self-absorbed – though they are only more interesting for their intensely hermitic approach to self-knowledge. Her fiction represents the craving for an unreliable narrator—a popular and almost hackneyed trope of 20th century modern and postmodern fiction—becoming mainstream; our acceptance of a universal unreliability in our understanding of other people. Zambreno, on the other hand, remains always wary of this unreliability. She attempts to use literature and philosophy as a glue, filling the gaps between our individual perceptions. But in Drifts, culture does not quite manage to permeate, to reach any human core of personality. Rather, it seems to paper over the only emotional connection with undeniable value: that of a woman and her dog. Zambreno and Moshfegh present two responses to modern life: self-absorption or dissociation. Both are extremes, but there is a sense, in their fiction, that the speed of modern life means we must choose one or the other. OLYA MAKAROVA reads English at Pembroke College. She is definitely not a Russian sleeper agent.

Art by Anna Covell


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