Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh Review – A Gloomy Adventure | Fiction
OFollowing a provocation, it is now common to regret that liquidity is thin as an aesthetic criterion. In a forum on the subject in the New Yorker in 2013, Margaret Atwood warned that “the qualities we appreciate in a character are not the same as those we would look for in a college roommate”. Less often regretted, but perhaps just as dangerous, are the pitfalls of concentrated inequality, elevated to a goal in themselves. Are characters who defiantly disagree because of sheer perversion preferable to their more accommodating counterparts? If we were not to read about someone solely because he wanted to be a respectful college roommate, always take out the trash and clean the shelves, should we read about someone solely because he would become a bad roommate?
These are the questions asked by Ottessa Moshfegh’s petuante corpus, which is populated almost uniformly by wasteful and junk. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the main character takes designer drugs to stay unconscious, while in Eileen she takes laxatives after every meal and fantasizes about patrimony. These attempts at negativity and repulsion provide a welcome respite from a culture otherwise immersed in pep and positivity – but Moshfegh’s recent efforts reveal the limitations of an approach that deals less with human drama than in boiling shock, quick to tease and quick to expire.
Lapvona is located in the medieval village with the title, where poor farmers work to support a greedy nobleman. The frivolous Lord Villiam lives in a mansion on the hillside with his estranged wife, Dibra, and their spoiled son, Jacob. Moshfegh makes few attempts to move beyond a crude caricature of medieval life, and the inhabitants of Lapvona itself are unpleasant in a number of formal ways. Jude, a grumpy shepherd, raises a whiny son, Marek, who has a “spine twisted in the middle so that the right side of his chest protrudes from the upper body.” The two are proud of their pain and longing, as if suffering was a competitive sport. When Jude punishes Marek, the boy is “encouraged by his father’s renewed contempt”, which makes “God loves him more through pity”. Meanwhile, Ina, the obligatory village witch, prescribes herbs for diseases, communicates with wildlife and acts as a wet nurse for the city’s infants – many of whom continue to suck on her breasts well into adulthood.
These characters make a plot that sounds more exciting than it feels. First, Marek kills Jacob. Then Jude brings Jacob’s body to William’s lavish mansion, where the lord insists on exchanging sons. While Marek enjoys a recent lavish hillside existence, a famine below the villagers forces him to eat “dead bees, bats, pests, worms, dirt,” and eventually each other. Various other crimes have been committed.
Lapvona is written in the flat, schematic tones of an allegory – but if it is a fable, it has neither morality nor message, a void that Moshfegh is apparently proud of. Just before she kills almost all of the book’s characters, she mockingly writes: “right or wrong, you want to think what you need to think so that you can manage. So find a reason here. “
But why should the reader care about characters who care so little about each other, or for anything at all? Jude leaves Marek with ease and later reflects that he does not miss him, and when Jacob dies, Villiam is indifferent to the point of remaining unaffected by the horribly destroyed corpse. He is “so used to being entertained that any drama” strikes him as “a staged for his private entertainment”: death is not “completely real to him”. The characters are only self-interested religious; they self-flag with an eye to receive divine rewards.
Perhaps Lapvona could be read as a parody or at least a deflation of the breathtaking Gothic mode – and in fact Moshfegh’s rejection of sentimentality, along with her many visceral descriptions of mutilation and other abominations, is one of her strongest points. When Jacob falls to his death, his face is “split and flat on the side that had hit”, and one of his eyeballs dangles from the cave. Almost lovingly, Moshfegh dwells on “the miserable look of slow pain in his hand with claws, the other arm broken at an insane angle.” During the famine, a character feeds another spider and listens to “the bones in her jaw creak, her teeth grind the rotten legs of the insects”. There are several appropriately repulsive attacks on cannibalism.
But it does not take long before the unmodulated peevishness of Moshfegh’s creations becomes tiring, if only because the response to their irritations is so low. The people of Lapvona are so little invested in their own lives that even their deaths are insignificant. They are not only different, but stubborn, one-dimensional. In Lapvona, life is stupid, people are stupid, love is stupid, embodiment is stupid and piety is stupid. The word “stupid” – which is appropriately careless and casual, not the kind of description used for insults or disappointments of any significance – appears many times: Marek has “stupid” thoughts, and the priest finds everyone “stupid”, but is “stupid” also”.
As a sensible person, I agree that most things are stupid, but their stupidity is only of interest because there are at least a few things that should be exempt from otherwise universal contempt. Stupidity is important because it threatens the treasures that are not stupid, or at least the few things we manage to care about despite their stupidity. Making a fetish of unlikability is newer than making a confirmation fetish, but ultimately it represents no more than the same gimmick, conversely.