Review: The mess of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, ‘Lapvona’
On the bookshelf
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin: 320 pages, $27
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In “The Pisces” by Melissa Broder, it’s “pink and slimy.” Ling Ma’s “Severance” has “an ugly sea cucumber.” In “Ottesa Moshfegh”Lapvone“, the designated putrid penis is described as “fat”, and while I know she did not start this garland of disgusting anatomical descriptions, I hold her most responsible for the generosity of this one. C is his territory.
“Fat penis” is the ultimate Moshfegh-style word association: adjacent to sex but unattractive. It’s doubly evocative of glandular filth and manual labor, and it’s just mundane enough to blame you for caring about the crudeness of that work.
Moshfegh, in his fourth novel, thrives in the mud, a happy little worm sliding from the earth down his throat. When I read his work, I imagine Monty Python oppressed serf calling out, “there’s some nice dirt here”, happily scooping up a big pile of choking slime.
So it’s no surprise that Moshfegh ended up with a novel set in the Middle Ages. Lapvona is a medieval estate with Eastern European accents – a Magda and a Grigor and a Dibra walk around. The backdrop: breezy forests and mountains, loamy smells and more sheep than a Scottish postcard (until Moshfegh gets his hands on the place and dries it into a Sahara) .
There’s a gluttonous priest and a power structure so unbalanced that this farcical little fable somehow turns into a satire of the workplace, like much of Moshfegh’s earlier work. Except in this case, the office is a fiefdom and instead of cabin spats, there are marauding bandits, a punishing dryness, and an unfortunate bout of cannibalism that ends in a “regurgitated, small, roasted little toe, his little fingernail sticking out”.
After increasing her perversity to an 11 in her fiction – in “Eileen” the main character bares her crotch in public and in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” another character has her anus waxed in her sleep – Moshfegh can’t resist throwing everything she’s got at “Lapvona”. The main character defiles 40 pages. He sucks on his centenarian nurse’s paper nipples until “her pubis throbs and smells”. There are many more. Garbage, starvation, pillory, infection, crushed skulls, rape, hanging, self-flagellation, detached eyeballs, replaced eyeballs and a grape that goes from one rectum to another orifice. Also, murdered children everywhere. Yet somehow not an ounce of feeling.
Subtlety, in case you didn’t know, isn’t Moshfegh’s forte. Villiam, Lord of Lapvona, is named so closely to the word “wicked” that autocorrect fights me over it as I type. And although the location of ‘Lapvona’ ends up climbing the hill to his stately mansion, the story belongs more to Marek, a ‘deformed’ 13-year-old boy with a ‘misshapen’ head, a ‘twisted’ spine and “bow” legs, the product of rape and a failed herbal abortion, cursed from the moment his big red head spilled out of his wretched mother’s body onto the dirt floor of his shepherd father.
As for the plot, there is a lot of it. However, it is sprinkled on top, like the crumb on a cake, added for a bit of crunch but ultimately not baked. Marek, who shares Moshfegh’s belief that pain is good, that it brings him closer “to the love and pity of his father”, ultimately sins too deeply for a simple beating as penance. He is brought to Villiam’s mansion and left there, at which point Lapvona – both the town and the novel – goes haywire.
In its finest moments, “Lapvona” follows former nanny, Ina, from her days as a young girl through the illness that blinded her and into the cave where she survived for decades on roots and herbs, cultivating her role as a mystic. What is surprising is how slowly Moshfegh can describe beauty when she wants to. The “silver bark” of the apple trees “thick as armor and laced with scars from years and years of villagers etching their names with Xs.” Chamomile, blueberries, ferns, Iris and the rustling grasses of the fields.
But the balance tilts so far towards darkness that even if we read this as a fallen paradise – salvation is every character’s hope and prayer, even the moron Villiam – it’s hard to see what message this world has for us except that life is hell. “Lapvona” is a test of endurance, as if Moshfegh wants to break the reader down to see if the novel can expand beyond its audience.
Characters in Moshfegh’s most successful works have always used the social contract to wipe their asses. The main character of “Eileen” embraces dirt (she keeps a dead mouse in her truck’s glove compartment and relishes its stool), so she doesn’t have to worry about not fitting in. The anonymous protagonist of “My year of rest and relaxationfends off the early rise of self-branding and hard work by slipping into a coma. This novel also spoke furtively about 9/11 – both the costs of solipsism and the limits of disaffection. His shock and awe carried a certain cultural weight. But with “Lapvona” I only feel dyspepsia.
I’m angry at the waste – not the massive human waste but the missed opportunities. Moshfegh is a brilliant chronicler of the utter corruptibility of any small dose of power, and a medieval town on the verge of acknowledging the violence inherent in the system (there are those Monty Python peasants again) is just the right place for his unbiased mind.
Jacques-Louis David’s 1798 painting “Portrait of a Young Woman in White”, used for the cover of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”, has gained new cult status since the novel’s publication. (You can buy a cloth mask which features a cropped version with no face but a barely covered nipple front and center – a detail Moshfegh would probably appreciate.) I often visit the original on the second floor of the National Gallery in Washington, where the young woman appears alternately irritated, dismissive and annoyed, perhaps depending on my mood.
“Lapvona” attempts a similar trick with the “Agnus Deiits subject a bound lamb presenting itself for sacrifice. Where David’s painting captures the eternal exasperation of modern life inherent in “My Year”, the Zurbarán tricks us into expecting a completely different novel. Behold this fluffy white creature, submissive and prepared for the bloodbath to come, a pure being, lifted high above the mud. Again, maybe we are the lamb.
Kelly’s work has appeared in New York Magazine, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.