Ottessa Moshfegh is well known for My Year of Rest and Relaxation – the book that topped most year-end lists in 2018. That book dealt with depression and solitude in contemporary New York, and this new one is quite a jump from that. Appealing to genre readers and literary fans alike, Lapvona has a few very small fantasy elements, and is set in a fictional fiefdom somewhere in medieval Europe.
One of the protagonists is Marek, a 13-year old disfigured boy who is abused by his father yet retains a strong faith amid the hardship of a shepherd’s life. To say much more would spoil the fun – although some readers might not think this book fun: Moshfegh incorporates scenes that boarder body horror, depictions of rape, humiliation and cannibalism. Lisa Allardice in The Guardian said it like this: “Her work takes dirty realism and makes it filthier.” Even though such filth might evoke some level of disgust, there is a clear playfulness and humor in the book too.
Not that is not serious stuff, or mere gore for the sake of gore. Let’s quote Publishers Weekly again:
Moshfegh’s picture of medieval cruelty includes unsparing accounts of torture, rape, cannibalism, and witchcraft, and as Marek grapples with the pervasive brutality and whether remaining pure of heart is worth the trouble—or is even possible—the narrative tosses readers through a series of dizzying reversals. Throughout, Moshfegh brings her trademark fascination with the grotesque to depictions of the pandemic, inequality, and governmental corruption, making them feel both uncanny and all too familiar.
Yes – this is fictional, even fantastic, but I have seldom come across a book that is so sharp and insightful about today’s world & our shared reality. Let’s dig a little deeper.
Moshfegh was born in 1981 to an Iranian father and Croatian mother, both professional violinists that fled Tehran at the outbreak of the revolution. Her own life story shielded her from becoming too comfortable with the dominant cultural narrative that all is well. Barry Pierce noted this on i-D:
she was always “acutely aware” of her troubled heritage, in a way that had “zero place” in the suburban America of the 1980s. “It was a lot to take on as a child, growing up in a country whose culture your parents don’t know,” she says, “and they were still recovering from all of the shit that happened to them, which was horrifying and unexpected, and everything that happened to their parents.”
Add chronic pain because of severe scoliosis, a former eating disorder, a former alcohol addiction, a mentor that killed herself in 2017 and a younger brother that overdosed, and you understand Moshfegh writes with a sharp eye about a reality that is something else than lip gloss, marketing and the American Dream.
What Lapvona cleverly shows is that certain things are actually very clear to see: the ruling classes don’t always have the people’s best interest at heart, and there are people making a fortune by exploiting others. But somehow that doesn’t generate real protest or much upheaval. Somehow most people choose to accept the state of affairs, internalize it, and keep to their own lives. In countless of ways, Moshfegh shows our mechanisms of self-delusion – including those of the ruling class. Because Moshfegh isn’t interested in pointing fingers, assigning blame: also the lord of the fiefdom is a victim of his own predicament, and what happens to Marek, can happen to everybody. It is telling that early in the book the ram turns out to be complicit in his own imprisonment – not unlike human animals.
An aspect that Publishers Weekly didn’t highlight is that Lapvona is also about climate change. Maybe Moshfegh didn’t intend it like that, but it is hard to read the drought that hits the village otherwise. And again: don’t we all know what’s coming? Isn’t the truth obvious for all that have any faith left in science? Moshfegh’s parable works wonderfully to evoke a society that becomes utterly distraught – in a fictional past, and in a near-certain future.
Mind you: this is not a woke leftwing progressive political book. No sensitivity readers involved whatsoever. On the contrary – Moshfegh takes no sides, but no prisoners either: she dishes out uncomfortable truths with a simple yet refined brutality, exposing the lies we tell each other and ourselves.
In an interview in Vogue with Elizabeth Nicholas she put it like this:
“My characters do tend to be interested in self-delusion, and I think that’s because so much of our reality is delusional. Even with shared delusions.”
And a bit further down the interview:
How do you walk that tightrope when you have political ideas percolating but you’re writing a character-driven story? I keep it really personal and try to get as close to my heart as I can. If I set out to write something political, I think I would fail. But I think that any writer is aware of her own use of symbolism.
Not that Moshfegg has no goals with her writing. In a YouTube interview (see below), she said this:
I think escapism has its purpose, you know, and so does fiction in general. If we want to live in the biggest world possible, we need everybody’s imagination to be there in the ether, so we can grab it and follow it, and follow ourselves beyond what we know. And so that’s what I wanted, I wanted a journey into the beyond.
There’s an insanity to this novel that is hard to describe. Barry Pierce tried it this way: “Lapvona is a gruesome farce, something like Monty Python and the Holy Grail if it had been directed by David Cronenberg”.
That’s actually not that far off, but it misrepresents the book as the comparison lacks a certain humanity Lapvona does have – a humanity it shares with titles like Magda Szabo’s The Door, or Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, or Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk or even The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, 4 very different books I’ve already grouped before as sharing something.
So farce, yes, partly – but with a psychological sophistication that hides itself well behind its seemingly coarse mannerisms and harsh gestures. That might be the reason why some reviewers don’t connect with this book, so try to not get stuck in its surface level esthetics. At the same time, don’t be scared away by all the talk – including mine – about its atrocities: Lapvona is so much more.
I could go on and on and analyse it to death: it’s rich, unique, powerful, and it deserves a thorough analysis. But it is early days and this book has only been out for about 3 months. Besides, if the quality of this book is anything to go by, I’m sure her work will be on numerous reading lists across universities the coming years and even decades. There will be no lack of analysis.
So for now, let me just say this: Lapvona is probably the best book I’ve read this year, and it is one of the very few books that go on my will-read-again pile. I’ll probably end up reading everything Ottessa Moshfegh has written.
If you have read the book, this June 2022 interview with Moshfegh – conducted by Miwa Messer for Barnes & Noble – is very much worth your while. For those that have tried Lapvona or one of her previous books and don’t like her approach, there are good tidings: in the interview Moshfegh says she wants to lay the disgust aspect of her writing down, make room for new stuff, and grow. Definitely not a one trick pony.
“I found disgust everywhere, it’s one of my primary emotions. Just like I said earlier I’ve been stuck in adolescence, I have been stuck in that emotion for a very long time. You know, it’s my go to. (…) I’m not that sophisticated of a feeler for a lot of different reasons.”