Review: Ottessa Moshfegh’s New Medieval Novel ‘Lapvona’ Cements Her Prolific Storytelling Talent

Prolific author Ottessa Moshfegh's newest novel 'Lapvona' is a step away from her past work with the same impressively accurate cynicism.

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In the voice memos of the group chat the girls and I teeter between discussions of Corey Stoll’s unimpeachable sexual charisma and our nagging sense that we are not approaching system collapse but are living already inside of it. The condition of our present feels more untenable by the day, hour, minute, even—with the warp-speed dissemination of information generated in the age of social media—by the very second. Twitter is a hellscape. America, a death cult. We live in hell. Or will soon enough. I am the sort of a person who has always turned to fiction in times of disorder, distress, despair. I believe that fiction is an incredibly capacious mode, and tend to think, too, that storytelling broadly relies on the promise of hope—one, perhaps, for a deeper understanding that may be generated therein. It is not that I wish naively to insist that novels will save the world, but that I feel fiction lists toward its capacity to give a clarity of shape to experience—even or especially when that experience is one of suffering, or horror.

Lately I am recalibrating this sensibility, as I consider it appears the Literary Hot Girls are losing hope. In 2020’s Weather, Jenny Offill fixed her gaze on impending civilizational doom and found there a dim solution—not revolution but a circling of the wagons, the cultivation of joy and care in the minor, the daily, the proximate. Earlier this year, Sheila Heti’s Pure Colour proposed the possibility that, in engineering humanity, God had shit the bed; that our world, after all, has only been a first draft, and that in the aftermath of its revisionary obliteration, plants may be better fit to take the wheel. In their most recent novels, Yoko Towada and Joy Williams turned to speculative dystopias of the near future; Gayl Jones and Rivka Galchen looked, instead, to the past. Now, Ottessa Moshfegh enters the ring with Lapvona, an “historical” fairy tale of the inequalities and violences that plague a poor village community over the span of a year. 

For the villagers of Lapvona, the fictional medieval fiefdom for which Moshfegh’s new novel is named, life, indeed, is nasty, brutish, and short. The book opens on Easter, during a raid: bandits descend upon the village, thieving cattle, cheese, and smelting tools—not to mention slaughtering men, women, and two small children in the process. No gold or silver taken, “as there was none” to be had. In point of fact, there’s not much of anything at all to go around, though in times of especial need the villagers desperately barter their scarce holdings amongst themselves. After one of the bandits is maimed by the dead children’s mother, he is captured and pilloried in the square, where his ear is cut off and he eventually is gutted and hanged. The shepherd’s son prays that God will forgive the bandit, musing that it is life, not its cessation, which is true suffering, for the dead, “were, unlike the rest of them, at peace.”

It should come as no shock to those familiar with Moshfegh’s work that the raid is but a canary’s song echoing in the mines: from here, the novel races from bad to worse, ineluctable. There is a catastrophic drought in summer which causes all the crops and cattle to die. The Lapvonians—vegetarians by custom—resort first to eating meat, and later, to eating each other. Most starve in encampments erected around the lake, where the water levels, too, are shrinking. The loss of these downtrodden souls is no matter to the lord of Lapvona, who will simply wait out the clock and replace them the next year with blondes imported from the North. By the end of the four seasons that follow, nearly all the original villagers will be mad or else in the ground themselves. 

Moshfegh has never been the sort of writer to be accused of going soft. Over the last decade, she has cultivated a rather strange celebrity—literary celebrity itself being of course a cultural strangeness now, an increasingly anomalous phenomenon with each passing generation of writers. Her first novel, Eileen, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, instantaneously catapulting her into the status of critical darling. Her next, 2018’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, transposed her already quite broad success into the cultural mainstream: the book—with its instantly recognizable Jacques-Louis David painting on the cover—seemed to be everywhere in New York that year, and to this day remains a powerful signifier for a certain sort of millennial (mostly hip, mostly female) readership. My Year transformed Moshfegh into a Meme Queen; the novel’s satirical descent into a vile and beautiful gallerina-adjacent pillhead’s existential crisis made reading an actual book on the subway, analog style, sexy again. 

Having published a novella, a collection of short fiction, and four novels in only eight years, Moshfegh has inarguably established herself as a consummately disciplined and prolific author. (Then again, prolificity rarely inspires fellow feeling in one’s competing critics and writers—just look at Joyce Carol Oates! (Don’t, on the other hand, seek out JCO’s foot photo on twitter—a fever dream moment that feels as if it could have been plucked right out of a Moshfegh novel…)) Eileen she wrote while following Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel; for 2020’s Death in Her Hands, she sat down each day to write 1000 words—unplanned and unrevised—until she felt she’d exhausted the voice of Vesta Gul, its elderly protagonist. In a controversial interview with The Guardian, she suggested that writing was like a game she had entered into to win financial security, fame, and the ability to say “fuck it….I’ll show you how easy this is.”

Moshfegh’s public confidence in her career has been classified by the haters as arrogance. In that same intefrview, she received particular flack for remarking that “I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined…talented, did I say that already?” (The built-in misogyny of many such critiques feels so familiar as to be nearly unremarkable—but just nearly.) Moshfegh’s heresies have in the main been against the sanctity and mystifications of the writerly life, but her sense that anyone with enough willpower can write a successful novel is a philosophy that feels perfectly in line with our era’s democratization of literary production. While some critics worship at the altar of her savagery, others maintain Moshfegh excels mainly in character studies (while faltering in plot), with some suggesting the titillations and scatologies which have become hallmarks of her novels are the triumphs of a storytelling shock jock. (My Year controversially closes with the destruction of the Twin Towers, the narrator’s pitiable frenemy ostensibly perishing inside.) In what ended up being a largely positive review of Death In Her Hands for the London Review of Books, J. Robert Lennon classified her approach as “reader-hostile,” and said of her previous work that it was indicative of the chaotic antagonism of a “high-functioning literary troll.”

Ottessa Moshfegh. Jake Belcher

Those going into Lapvona seeking a sea-change may as well turn back at the shore. The novel is as physically repellent as she’s ever been, and as misanthropic. Moshfegh is one of our most thrilling chroniclers of the abject—she is a delighted documentarian of all the excrescences and defilements of the body which force us to reckon with our inevitable decay, or what the French philosopher Julia Kristeva might term our future-deadness. Perhaps the great evolution at hand in Moshfegh’s ongoing corpus is the fact of Lapvona’s rather full-throated politicism. This is at heart a fable of haves and have nots, of the ways violent psychologies and apparatuses of exploitation—of the poor, of resources, of women’s bodies, of the land and earth itself—constitute a significant stratum, if not the very bedrock, of the human condition. 

As the narrative shifts perspective from the beleaguered village to the wasteful and perverse decadence of the manor, we come to know the Trumpian lord of Lapvona, Villiam, as well as his miserable and unfaithful wife, Dibra, and his bastard son Jacob, a strong and handsome boy preoccupied with playing God as a taxidermy hobbyist. We discover the bandits who raided the village are not the unpredictably anarchic interceders the villagers believe them to be; rather, they are periodically and surreptitiously deployed by Villiam “any time there was a rumor of dissent among the farmers.” The drought, too, is man-made: a result of Villiam directing the winter snow-melt into a reservoir that he hoards for the manor and, naked, splashes about in, impervious atop his hill to the suffering down below. Anyway, “Terror and grief were good for morale, Villiam believed.”

Not that any of Villiam’s kin could speak to the truth of such a belief in practice. Nearly none of the inhabitants of Lapvona’s well-guarded manor slum about in the village. Rumors are transmitted between the two worlds by way of Father Barnabas, the village priest—a man of tenuous faith and deep stupidity, whose central functions are to lull the laboring class with the opiate of religion and, just as crucially, to ferret out information as Villiam’s personal spy. Thus the ruling class and the institution of the church operate in tandem to extract every last atom of possible profit from the villagers and servants, who are not viewed by Villiam, Barnabas, and Villiam’s family as people at all, but merely means to a variety of wealth-accruing ends. 

Lapvona pivots on the story of the shepherd’s adopted son, Marek, motherless and, in the language of the novel, physically deformed—a condition resulting from his mother’s haphazard but persistent attempts to induce abortion during pregnancy, at least according to the village midwife. Though Marek has been raised to believe his mother is dead, like many of the ostensible truths offered at the fore of the novel, her death is revealed rather to have been a strategic misdirection. Agata has only been hiding away in a nunnery, which is in Lapvona the lone place a woman may escape the violations of men, or flee her past. (In the nunnery, women are “enslaved” only to one another.) Marek is the product of Agata’s rape at the hands of her brother: he is, in her view, “a bastard, a scar. That’s what a child of rape was, in fact—evidence.”

Marek is a classic Moshfeghian grotesque: inheriting the legacy handed him by the loners of Eileen, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and Death in Her Hands, Marek’s physical difference orients his life toward social, emotional, and spiritual isolation. According to his father Jude, even the baby lambs despise Marek, for they know he is “a baby in his own way, that he would steal their milk for himself if he could.” Abused by Jude and a living testament to his mother’s trauma, Marek is pitied or else shunned by all around him—all, that is, besides Ina, the blind midwife who lives a hermetic life apart from the villagers and navigates her limited world through communion with the birds. Ina is the witch of Moshfegh’s fairy tale, older than anyone can remember, and a record-keeper of sorts for the village’s history. Though never a mother herself, she had been wet nurse to generations of Lapvonians, and in this continuity of care and interdependency imagines that the babies of Lapvona “will all be mine.”

In Ina, Lapvona supposes a possible woman-centered intervention in the structural subjections of the patriarchal order, but Ina’s self-imposed isolationism and deep moral ambivalence do not, finally, situate a homegrown, DIY matriarchy as capable of (re)inventing paradise. (Indeed, later in the novel, it is Ina who unhesitatingly introduces cannibalism into the immediate narrative, Ina who plucks the eyes from a horse to replace her own.) Like functionally all of Moshfegh’s characters, Ina is fundamentally self-interested and chiefly amoral in worldview. She leverages her midwifing experience to secure a position in the manor as handmaiden to Agata, who has arrived there in her habit, tongueless, mute, and pregnant with a child Lord Villiam believes is the second Christ-baby—before allowing Agata to die giving birth to it. Girlbosses stay winning.  

The latter half of the novel tracks the assimilation of several villagers into the manor: Ina and Agata, of course; Jude as the stable-keep; and Marek, taken under Villiam’s wing as a replacement son, after Marek “accidentally” kills Jacob. Characters are repeatedly mistaken for one another, misidentified, or rendered substitutive. This is in its way Moshfegh’s comedy of errors: boundaries of class, gender, physical ability, and faith between subjects are tested by the plot’s rapid-paced orchestration of narrative musical chairs, revealing such divisions to have always been, if not materially illusory, certainly not a matter of metaphysical substance. The particularity of any given human in Lapvona is null; even Villiam is in the end poisoned by a richer lord, with Marek installed in turn in his place.

Marek’s twisted sentimental education is complete. Though he begins as a child fixated on the potentialities of grace and common sentiment—visiting the bandit on the pillory, he wonders (in one of many sidewise Shakespearean citations): “Was [my blood] not the same color as the bandit’s blood?”—Marek grows quickly accustomed to the luxuries of his new positioning in the ruling class. Regarding the servitude of those now below him, Marek soon becomes more than willing, even eager, to participate in their degradations. As the novel’s focus travels with its villagers from the scarcity and precarity of their lives to the hedonism of the manor, we find (of course) that wealth and power do not merely tarnish but corrupt absolutely. 

A cynical conclusion for cynical times, perhaps. Preparing for this review, I confess I found unanticipated sympathy with the haters, in rationale if not in feeling. Crowded into the same basket, the novels all together do seem hostile, do have a certain smug encounter with the reader who looks to fiction for pleasure or beauty, do engineer an encompassing philosophy that at the very least pals about with nihilism. Moshfegh’s characters and narratives insist, in the end, that humans are, at base, a rotten, self-involved sort, handmaids to our own annihilation because we are unable (or worse yet, do not care) to parse the interests of the individual from the wellbeing of the collective. (One wonders—or in any case, I wonder—what Moshfegh might do with a likable character.) Hers is surely a hard-eyed view. But the fact of her cynicism is not reason alone to dismiss her sly achievements, the revelations wriggling beneath the rock of her fictional hells.

Lapvona is a witty, vicious novel, frothing at the mouth at the opportunity to indict all the worst habits and orientations of our contemporary. As with Rivka Galchen’s canny, veiled dive into Trump-era mob psychology and conspiracism through the 17th century witch trial of Katharina Kepler in Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, the frame of the (albeit fictionalized) historical in Lapvona allows Moshfegh to sidestep the imaginative failures which have scarred so many present-tense literary “political” novels. It instead refracts its representations of class inequality, climate catastrophe, reproductive rights, and #metoo through ever-so-slightly defamiliarized shapes. Our terrible modernity looks back at us as if from the face of a convex mirror: recognizable but not dated from the jump, not beholden to the inverse politics of the reactionary or the cringe-purveyor, not cloyingly obligated to the logic and language of social media. 

On the level of form, too, Lapvona marks a gear-shift for Moshfegh: the book is the first of her novels to not be narrated in the first person, to have its narrative consciousness flit manically across a broad cast of characters. This is a novel of community, although one ravaged by injustice, interpersonal antagonism, and general nastiness. Lapvona is in its way a story of three of our most urgent crises—capitalism, plague, climate—to interrogate the ways human greed has exponentially exacerbated the inequities of their evils. By inspecting how such dis-orders infest and largely eradicate a small village, Moshfegh signals a broader resignatory sensibility toward our existence-on-the-brink. 

No, Moshfegh isn’t rooting about in her bag of tricks to reveal a lighter touch; her fairy tale hews nearer the horrors of the Grimm than the moralities of the Anderson lineage. Most fascinating is that, as Moshfegh yet refuses to adjust her set, the world seems finally to have caught up with her darkness. At the end of their year of pain and suffering, the survivors in the village of Lapvona shuffle off the coil of their memory and lumber dully forward; the cycle of exploitation and misery, followed by the tidying up in the aftermath, will only repeat itself. We regard the horror of ourselves and our world and compartmentalize. It isn’t, Moshfegh insists, that we can’t do anything to reverse our imminent doom; it’s simply that we are too fucking monstrous to try. 

Review: Ottessa Moshfegh’s New Medieval Novel ‘Lapvona’ Cements Her Prolific Storytelling Talent