“Lapvona is the first of Moshfegh’s four novels to be written in the third person, signalling a turn towards questions of community and interdependence. How do we live together?”
In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ottessa Moshfegh was one of a handful of writers and artists called upon for comment as an oracle of isolation. Her 2018 breakthrough novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, followed a misanthropic young woman who drugs herself into a year-long stupor in an attempt to ‘reset’ her life. As the world locked down, sales of the book increased, and Moshfegh was asked about her apparent prescience. She answered with some ambivalence in an essay for GQ. She had come to understand that “time is collapsible and circular”. She was using her own isolation to ruminate on “Christianity, the paradigm of good and evil, mind control”. The result of these ruminations is Lapvona.
Lapvona is the first of Moshfegh’s four novels to be written in the third person, signalling a turn towards questions of community and interdependence. How do we live together? Not very successfully, if this novel’s medieval fiefdom is anything to go by. The village of Lapvona is governed by a cruel overlord, Villiam, with the cynical assistance of a priest, Father Barnabas. Together, they conspire to exploit the villagers, hoard Lapvona’s natural resources amidst drought and famine, and manipulate the townspeople’s religiosity. As in her previous works, Moshfegh’s characters are often physically disgusting and morally bankrupt. She initially focuses on young Marek, the self-flagellating son of local lamb-herder Jude, and Ina, a blind woman who once nursed the village’s children and now spends her time getting high and communicating with birds. But Moshfegh doesn’t really privilege any Lapvonian over another. In five chapters – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring again – she reveals both her characters’ isolation and their doomed interconnectedness, inhabiting the consciousness of each character in turn as they torment and devour one another. This lends Lapvona the curious impression of a body horror shot in one take.
Much has been made of Moshfegh’s preoccupation with the depraved, often a source of dark comedy in the novel. Although evil, Villiam is motivated by childish boredom. He eats constantly and jokes boorishly about piss and shit. His servants perform incessant songs and dances in scenes slyly suggestive of a medieval version of TikTok. In a typical exchange with the priest, he learns a new word: “Excrement. Is that like sacrament?” Moshfegh knows how to write a troll, perhaps because she is something of a troll herself; the epigraph to Lapvona is a Demi Lovato quote, “I feel stupid when I pray”.
And yet, for all of this badness and bawdiness, Moshfegh hasn’t written a faithless novel. The citizens of Lapvona are constantly searching for signs of God’s will, unaware that much of what they interpret is engineered by Villiam. The reader will also find many religious symbols – the lamb is working overtime – but they rarely lead us to the expected revelation. God, Moshfegh suggests, is there – just not in the ways we might expect. As Lapvona (and Lovato?) learns: ‘God wasn’t listening… God was busy lifting the sun for another day.’
Words: Eve Hawksworth