Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh — grotesque fascination

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Lapvona is a dramatic departure for one of America’s most exciting — and most provocative — young novelists. Ottessa Moshfegh has the rare distinction of being as critically lauded as she is widely read.

Her 2015 debut, Eileen, was shortlisted for the most prestigious awards either side of the Atlantic, while My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), an unsettling study of chronic depression set in the narcissistic culture of millennial New York, and Death in Her Hands (2020), a quieter work exploring the loneliness of old age and the consolations of fantasy, were both New York Times bestsellers.

But where her first three novels are set in late 20th- and early 21st-century America, Lapvona takes place in a vaguely medieval world where feudal power reigns and physical suffering is rife. The panoply of names with Greek, Hebrew and Slavic origins, and the mischievous menagerie of animals drawn from disparate parts of the world, makes clear how futile it would be to attempt to place the novel in any “real world” time and place, lending an allegorical air to the events that unfold.

Those events revolve around the titular village of Lapvona and its ruling lord, Villiam, who resides in a mansion set above the village and who ruthlessly extorts as much food and wealth from the inhabitants as he can, exploiting their religious superstitions and even employing bandits to conduct brutal raids at the slightest signs of unrest. Even a devastating drought that forces the inhabitants into cannibalism fails to foster any real resistance.

But Villiam’s incomprehensible response to the death of his son at the hands of the village outcast Marek — adopting Marek in his son’s place and refusing to acknowledge that Marek was not always his child — upends Lapvona society and its precarious balances of power, with near-universally disastrous consequences.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Rape, incest and dismemberment are all recounted with the eye for nauseating detail and the unflinching detachment that has turned some readers away from Moshfegh’s previous novels. Yet the violent and arbitrarily cruel world of Lapvona is arguably more suited to her talents than her usual contemporary settings. Particularly compelling is the way Moshfegh’s compulsive fascination with all that is most abject and grotesque in human life is set against extraordinarily lyrical evocations of the natural world.

Less wholly successful than the change in setting — and, indeed, genre, this being a kind of medieval fantasy novel — is Lapvona’s shift in narrative focus. Where Moshfegh’s other novels were all narrated in the first person by a single female protagonist, the third person narration of her latest moves between the perspectives of a relatively large cast of colourful characters, who invariably display her trademark fascination with strange, extreme or aberrant psychological states.

On the one hand, Moshfegh exhibits a previously untested facility for swiftly immersing readers in each character’s deeply idiosyncratic ways of experiencing the world. Strangest of all is the novel’s most unequivocally magical character, the unnaturally long-lived Ina, who survives many years alone in the forest despite her blindness thanks to the birds who communicate with her through song, and who returns to the village to serve as a wet nurse to all its children for several decades.

This greater range of perspectives also allows Moshfegh to deepen her familiar preoccupation with the sheer diversity of human sexuality and the ease with which desire can redirect itself towards all manner of objects. At least half the male inhabitants of the village are fixated with sucking the nipples of women old enough to be their mothers or grandmothers, in what seems to be a search for comfort and calm as much as erotic gratification. Particularly troubling, in the sphere of sexuality, is the way that social taboos on incest, paedophilia and rape seem to have no hold on the inhabitants of Lapvona, where sexual crimes are practically commonplace, if passed over in silence.

On the other hand, the novel moves so quickly between its extraordinarily eccentric characters that it is difficult to become particularly invested in their (usually horrific) fates. It seems that Lapvona is simply less interested in individuals than in depicting a community’s peculiar social ecosystems, in which one’s sense of self is so dangerously dependent on one’s relationship to others.

However much of a departure Lapvona might be for Moshfegh, it is as unlikely to put off her devoted readers as it is to appeal to those who found her previous novels simply too much to stomach. The opening scene, in which Marek kisses the head of a bandit before his execution and tastes “the salt of the man’s sweat and the rancid oils caked into his reddish hair”, is typical of her particular enthusiasm for bodily fluids.

Yet there is something undeniably salutary to Moshfegh’s bracing refusal to accept that pleasure and desire are the sole province of the beautiful, her revelling in the infinite kinds of ugliness that can be lusted after and loved.

Moshfegh’s bold venture beyond her comfort zone in Lapvona is a welcome promise of how much more she has to offer American literature today.

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh Jonathan Cape, £14.99/Penguin Press $27, 320 pages

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