Ottessa Moshfegh’s newest novel, “Lapvona,” is a shocking leap for the author, but not wholly unexpected. Perhaps her most explicit venture into the surreal, Moshfegh dives straight into a medieval fantasy world where religion reigns supreme and horse eyes are a sufficient cure for blindness. The novel’s content is gritty and grotesque — it’s definitely hard to stomach in large doses — but Moshfegh’s accessible writing style makes it difficult to not suck the entire book up in one sitting.
“Lapvona” is both the name of the book and the setting of the novel. Its narration follows Marek, the 13-year-old son of a shepherd named Jude. Suffering from Jude’s physical and verbal abuse, the only solace Marek finds is with Ina, a blind woman who has nursed nearly every villager and is known through the town to have unique abilities to communicate with birds and other natural creatures. The people of Lapvona are deeply religious and their lives revolve around the church, which is led by the corrupt Father Barnabas. Marek enjoys the safety that his religion and subordinacy in a religious hierarchy provide. Lording over Lapvona from atop his castle is Villam, a casually cruel and uncaring king who exploits citizens while living in over-the-top opulence. After an unfortunate mistake puts Marek closer than he’s ever been to King Villam, the story unfolds as famine grips the people of Lapvona and Marek has to deal with the consequences of his own actions.
Marek has physical ailments that are a frequent target of mocking and abuse from his father and the villagers, as well as self-loathing. He is described to have “grown crookedly” with a misshapen head and a twisted spine that causes his arm to be permanently bent across his body. The novel constantly reiterates that Marek is “damaged,” not sound in mind or body, and the other characters’ perspectives share how disgusting they find him.
It can be argued that the description of Marek is merely part of the fantasy of “Lapvona,” but his character being completely pathetic, useless and delusional seems slightly out of touch. Though his primary issues remain purely mental, Marek’s physical disabilities seem as if they were written just to highlight the cruelty of the other characters who treat him poorly. Moshfegh isn’t a stranger to highlighting aspects of the physical human condition; in fact, it’s a theme in many of her other novels. I don’t know if depicting a disabled character in such a negative light feels productive to readers who may struggle with physical disabilities as Marek does. I do know, however, that “Lapvona” already exists in a fantasy world, and Moshfegh could have used this genre to her advantage to come up with a more creative way for Marek’s character to struggle physically.
Outside of Marek’s physical ailments, it’s hard to underscore just how painfully pathetic he is throughout the novel. He lacks intelligence and knowledge of social cues, which frequently makes him the butt of most jokes. He has unwavering faith in religion and God, and most of his suffering he enjoys because he believes it makes him more pious. For example, when Marek trips over a tree bringing water back to his cottage and cuts his chin, he takes a rock and further cuts up his face to get a harder beating when he returns home. “Pain was good, Marek felt,” Moshfegh writes. “It brought him closer to his father’s love and pity.”
Depictions of violence like the example above are plentiful throughout “Lapvona.” The novel is unexpectedly gruesome and graphic, going from some small moments of tenderness to stomach-turning portrayals of depravity. To be honest, I’m not even sure if tenderness is the right word or if the rest of the book is so dark that the moments that aren’t horrible come across as tender.
I don’t consider myself to be particularly squeamish when it comes to depictions of violence, but after the two sessions of reading it took me to finish “Lapvona,” I felt a pit of disgust in my stomach. Moshfegh’s unwavering commitment to exploring even the most grotesque subjects felt somewhat irrelevant to the story and, at times, for shock value alone. The scenes with cannibalism, rape and murder definitely illustrated the depraved potential of human beings, but I’m not sure the scenes had to be that descriptive to get her point across — it’s possible to make similar points about the extremes of the human condition without getting so gruesome. One of the many reasons I enjoy Moshfegh’s writing is her ability to set a scene without flowery language, but her unflinching word choice made me cringe even harder at the most grotesque moments.
This novel is uncomfortable to read, not just because of these gruesome depictions but because Moshfegh’s world looks so eerily similar to our pandemic world. With a ruler who steals from the labor and harvest of the citizens during the famine to fund his lavish lifestyle, the power structure of Lapvona is not all too different from the increasing wealth inequality in our own county that has only widened as a result of the pandemic. Rather than focus their attention on the corrupt king, the characters of “Lapvona” either fight amongst themselves or attribute all of their suffering to God. It’s not until after the famine that the villagers finally decenter religion in their lives, allowing them more freedom but increased selfishness as they’ve lost their faith and kindness towards others. Ina says to a townsperson in one of the closing scenes in the story, “If you don’t let God into your heart, you’ll die. That’s what kills people. Not time or disease.”
Moshfegh uses the backdrop of famine in “Lapvona” to highlight the lengths to which humans are willing to go to survive and the tendency for those in power to exploit the less fortunate without feeling remorse. It’s a different direction for Moshfegh, not necessarily because of the increase in violence — her other books definitely have their fair share — but because “Lapvona” represents a shift from novels focusing on personal battles to more of a wider social commentary.
With the exception of “Homesick for Another World,” Moshfegh’s collection of short stories, the author’s work has used a female main character in all of her most lauded novels. “Eileen,” “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” and “Death in Her Hands” all center on women at their most isolated and lonesome. This is partially what has allowed her work to resonate so deeply with young adult women such as myself — it fits into the subgenre of “Good for Her” media. It’s not that the reader is left with an overwhelming feeling of joy that the unnamed protagonist in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” actually succeeds at sleeping for an entire year, but it fits in the subgenre of women going to unspeakable and sometimes violent lengths purely to fulfill their own desires. The haunting eyes of Amy Dunne in the closing scene of “Gone Girl’ and Dani’s eerie half-smile-half-grimace in the final shot of “Midsommar” aren’t that different from the emotions that persist far after the ending of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.”
“Lapvona” is unique for Moshfegh in terms of the amount of male perspective that the book uses. Primarily, the story is told through Marek and Jude’s experiences and thoughts, but there are pieces scattered throughout that focus on Ina or the king’s female servant Lispeth. The female characters are on the periphery, but Moshfegh still explores their wants and motivations with the same depth as her past protagonists with the different perspectives the story uses. Rather than just noting that Jude abused Marek’s mother Agatha, “Lapvona” shifts between the thoughts of Jude and Agatha — the abuser and the abused — to share both of their motivations. The shifting perspectives allow readers to examine the multifaceted nature of the characters.
The pure violence of this book makes it extremely difficult for me to recommend. I’m not sure this book will have any of the fanfare and relatability that TikTok has bestowed upon “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” That’s not to say it’s not worth the read — it definitely is — but I wouldn’t recommend anyone put themselves through the darkness of this novel without sufficiently preparing themselves for the ride to come — perhaps by keeping your comfort book on deck to lighten the mood at the conclusion of “Lapvona.”
Daily Arts Writer Isabella Kassa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.