The World of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona Is One of Meaningless Cruelty
In Lapvona, Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel set in a faux-medieval village, random acts of violence and cruelty are the law of the land. Her refusal to explain the social causes of this misery makes her depiction of the world shallow and superficial.
While waiting for an unspecified conclusion — to their lives? to the world? — Nell, the mother character in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, remarks that there is “nothing funnier than unhappiness.” One imagines that if Ottessa Moshfegh were to interject herself into this conversation she would wryly add, apart from pitiless inescapable cruelty. The author of four novels, Eileen (2015), My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), Death in Her Hands (2020) and Lapvona, released this month, Moshfegh has made a name for herself as an explorer of cruelty and misery, self-inflicted or otherwise.
Set in a faux-medieval town, Lapvona takes the author’s earlier fascinations to an extreme. A gang of bandits slaughter two men, three women, and two small children; a cripple entertains the lord by shooting grapes from his asshole into the mouth of a nun; and a spiritual healer encourages her visitors to eat the weakest. When one of the bandits that raid the town of Lapvona in the novel’s opening is apprehended: “Nobody could say what specific acts of horror this one pilloried bandit had committed,” and yet they pelt him with the excrement of farmyard animals anyway, before chaining him in the village square, cutting off his ear, and beating him. From the very first page, the reader is guided through a world connected by a chain of beatings, rape, murder, and pillage.
The story focuses on Marek the cripple, whose broken body is unable to do much more than carry water in a bucket from the well to his unappreciative father. Happenstance transports the shepherd boy from the fields to the high table where he joins the company of his fiefdom’s rulers. The idiot becomes heir to “the manor on the mountain” that “doubled, then tripled in size.” From this manor, the lord, Villiam, and his accomplice, the ungodly priest, Father Barnabas, subject the peasants of Lapvona to tithes, laws, punishment, and supposed military protection from the bandits that surround their lands. So strong is the peasant mindset in Marek that initially he craves the whip, saddened that those who now serve him will receive more of God’s love than him. Later in the story we are told his new role is “to be quiet and accept without question anything that happened at the manor.”
Marek is the son of the reclusive, fundamentalist lamb herder, Jude, who regularly beats his son to teach him the lessons of God (the brute use to which Christianity can be put to justify acts of cruelty is one of the core themes of Lapvona): “If Jude loved the stinging whip, Marek loved the cold for its cruelty.” Marek tolerates every beating because it means he is more likely to enter heaven. But Marek himself hates violence, we are told. In an uncharacteristic outburst, where retribution takes the wrong object, Marek kills Jacob, the son of Villiam. Seeking to restore the natural order, Jude takes his murderous son to the manor, hoping that Villiam will kill him.
The lord of the manor, although somewhat saddened to lose his son, is pleased that the death will hurt his unfaithful wife. In Lapvona, suffering does not breed a desire to end suffering, but instead only justifies its continuation. To pour more salt on his wife’s wounds, Villiam suggests that the two fathers should make a trade: one dead son for one live son, a fair exchange given Jude’s estimation of his progeny.
Random Acts of Violence
This is Moshfegh’s fourth novel and her second work of historical fiction after the novella McGlue (2014), loosely about nineteenth century pirates. History — evoked by Moshfegh with little concern for fidelity — allows her to avoid the constraints of realism. The past, the saying goes, is another country and Moshfegh uses this new locale to indulge in the language and logic of fairy tales, as one bad turn requires another. This commitment to a what one could call a one-upmanship of violence makes most of the novel incredibly compelling.
Before Marek becomes the heir to the seigniory, “he understood that his destiny was to be small, a keeper of small animals, a man of the land, not of riches.” But with his change of fortunate comes a willingness to adjust to his new role as a dispenser, rather than a receiver, of cruelty. What makes any one of the novel’s characters replaceable with another is the fact that within the world of Lapvona violence is the law of the land. The pleasure for the reader comes from the realization that, despite the unfolding of different circumstances, a consistent threat of hardship will hold everything together. While one cannot guess what will happen, one knows that the reasons for it will be both gruesome and comfortingly stupid.
This economy of fate is not only the threat of violent exchange. It is also the weather. Each of the five sections of the book are titled after a season. After the death of Jacob in the third section of the book, “Summer,” a drought befalls the land. The peasants starve while Marek and his newly adopted father, Villiam, engage in eating contests until they vomit. Villiam’s wife and Jacob’s mother, Dibra, flees. The next day her horse returns without a rider. The beast’s eyes have been gouged out, a sign, Villiam believes, that something good is going to happen. He is right: the rains start again, causing floods in which tens of people die. Even relief from suffering is a form of suffering.
While the characters might take their misfortunes to have been caused by omens, sacrifices, or magic, Moshfegh’s narrative makes clear that change is only ever produced by accident. There is no command of authority, only coincidence.
Undeniably, Lapvona‘s is a wonderfully convoluted plot. Unfortunately, its execution is less than successful. In the first half of the novel, we are invited to contrast the decadence of the manor with the impoverishment of the village; Villiam, the bad ruler, holds together both his fiefdom and the plot’s coherence. But excessive twists and turns throw the narrative off course. The result of the winding path which the novel takes is the spectacular actions of its climax read as if they were more important than the consistency or development of the characters who bear witnesses to them.
The first half of the novel spins through the well-structured beauty of its fairy-tale world; the final third stutters, lost in an overexplained plot with which it cannot keep up. In this maelstrom, whole chunks of the story seem to get lost. When Marek mistakenly believes he has buried the corpse of his father, the later reappearance of Jude is of little consequence (presumably this is a world where loss means quite literally nothing to people’s psyches). Additionally, Father Barnabas, the indecorous priest who only wishes to please the power of the lord, is not as well utilized for comic effect as he could be.
For Lapvona to end, the plot requires Villiam’s downfall. The only problem is that he has all the power, and his subjects have none. This is a real-life dilemma which even Moshfegh’s fantastical history is unable to plausibly sidestep. But sidestep she does. With the last hundred pages, Moshfegh finds a way around Villiam’s power. The lord develops a sudden desire to be loved by his subjects. Moshfegh herself seems unsure as to why or how this occurs: “Villiam had never cared for the Christmas visitors. […] But this year was different. Villiam was different. […] Gossip was important now.” The plot starts to revolve around an endless, interchangeable set of characters located inside the manor, as well as a host of newly invited guests, each with their own convoluted chain of motivations so that the lord’s downfall can occur. With this loss of Villiam’s sovereign authority, the story, too, becomes lost.
In contrast to My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh’s most acclaimed novel, her latest outing is a formal improvement. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which focused on the spiritual and material demise of a yuppy New Yorker addicted to prescription drugs, relied on a brilliant premise. But, beyond plunging into the depths of isolated self-loathing, the novel did little to build on this conceit. By contrast, Lapvona sees Moshfegh utilizing characters to build a world of consequence, a rigid albeit unevenly described social order constrains the actions of the novel’s characters. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, our protagonist finds herself self-destructively sleeping through 9/11.
Unfortunately, the sheer extent of plot in Lapvona comes at the expense of any kind of development. Occurrences proliferate with little concern for the figures they sweep up. In this carelessness, characters are reduced to little more than simulations in a computer game of enclosed cruelty — like Sims burning while Moshfegh, sitting at her computer screen, callously removes the doors and windows.
While Lapvona attempts to portray suffering as meaningless, this is both the novel’s curse and its blessing. It can read at times as if Moshfegh is avoiding making a decision about whether she believes suffering is political or just a fact of nature, and therefore whether it can be alleviated or not. Perhaps it is not the role of novels to decide this task. And yet, in Lapvona, it is the story itself that gets lost within ambivalence.
In the first half, this ambivalence is the novel’s strength; the crude depiction of a horrific world reads like a humorous call to action that this world must end. As it continues, the story becomes increasingly trapped in the web of its own plot. But in a world where loss never leads to any change, promise of redemption, improvement, or sudden development of agency, the air empties out of these balloon-like characters, and by the end of the novel they are left as little more than flattened types.
Nowhere is this confusion around the cause of human suffering more explicitly revealed than when Moshfegh explores the consciousness of Vuna, the wife of Grigor (one of the many servants and townspeople that come to populate the manor in the novel’s close): “She knew that fighting was pointless. As a woman, she would always lose. It was not her place to stage a battle, but to back away to preserve what life she had left to live.” One might ask Moshfegh what resolution about fighting looks like in a world where self-preservation is no longer enough to secure one’s safety.