Between the Magic and the Real: Strangeness and Satire in “Lapvona”

Ottessa Moshfegh has built an enduring, endearing, and consistently entertaining literary career from a refreshingly different set of building supplies. Eschewing convention while remaining consistently readable (and marketable), her novels and stories are unafraid to slip into the strange, the slightly bizarre, the somewhat-left-of-center. Regardless of how strange or, as always, humorous, her work is, however, what gives her writing its effectiveness is the weight of the underlying message, the importance of the themes, the keen commentary on daily life. In her latest book, Moshfegh seems to have made a pointed decision to imbue simply more of her trademark philosophical styles across the board, resulting in the utterly odd, wickedly funny, and sharply satirical novel Lapvona.

The eminently Moshfeghian title comes from the name of a town, somewhere it seems in Europe approximately in the time of the Black Death — broadly Middle Age Europe, would be a reasonable assumption. Against this sunny backdrop is Marek, the “crookedly grown”, hopelessly loyal son of sheep farming Jude. Marek’s mother, Jude tells him, died in childbirth, and a brutally pious religiosity has taken her place. Jude’s life in a medieval village is a difficult one, and he sees to it that his son’s is even worse. Moshfegh’s third-person narrative entity is rich in her trademark blend of arresting language and blindside humor as she triangulates truth and thought amongst several characters:

Jude could never bear to see his reflection, not even in the clear, icy stream that ran through the valley or in the lake where he went to bathe a few times a year. He also believed that Marek ought not see himself. He was glad to have a son and not a daughter, whose lack of beauty would be much more injurious. Marek was ugly. And fragile. Not at all like Jude, whose bones and muscles were like polished bluffs beaten by an ocean, soft and luminous despite his skin being grimy and often covered in lamb shit.

As the narration moves around the town, slipping into whichever perspective it happens to find, we learn about the real story about both Lapvona and Marek’s parentage. The town is a fiefdom, one marked by a rather absurd degree of misuse and exploitation, in a manner that reminds one of Candide in its comical corruption. Voltaire’s classic comes to mind often while reading Lapvona, which metamorphose, with a subtlety and skill one has come to expect from Moshfegh, into a relentless criticism of the late capitalist Western state. There seems to be something oddly familiar, for the modern reader in a twenty-first century “enlightened” “democracy,” about Lapvona’s extreme social inequality and heavy-handed tyranny of idiocy.

Villiam, the governor of Lapvona living in his manor on the hill, is perhaps a too well-drawn caricature of the depraved and dull-witted despot, regularly abusing the villagers and his female servants while crying over a stubbed toe. As the book progresses, Moshfegh brings in more characters and viewpoints in order to explore the range of ineptitude and struggle on display in the town. The playfully incisive voice of the narrative entity propels the swift and resonant plot through these principle perspectives with technical ease, making her approach all the more effective.

Third-person narrative voice, that foundational element of fiction, is a weapon in Moshfegh’s hands. Lapvona, despite the centrality of temporal-geographical setting to its success, has no time or need for tedious exposition or whitewashed backstory. The reader is immediately immersed and instantly comfortable with the storyline and central premise, a testament to Moshfegh’s viselike control of her narrative entity, even as the book reads with a deceptively casual tone. Here is the skill that has been on display throughout her career, and is the defining characteristic of an oeuvre that thrives in a succession of slightly left-of-center worlds and actors.

When Marek, now living in Villiam’s manor, picks up a shoe and attempts to extract some measure of masochistic religious penance from his overworked, underfed, routinely violated chambermaid, Lispeth, Moshfegh displays the precision with which she is able to draw desperate minds in a few tight lines of free-indirect style:

The pain of the shoe digging into his twisted ribs and spine released what felt like a spirit of hurt, as though it has been lodged within his body and was now set free.

“Oh please,” Lispeth muttered in irritation, grabbing the shoe from his shaking hands. Marek let go and crouched down, both to hide his genitals from the girl and to expose his back for more lashings.

“Then you do it!” he sobbed.

Lispeth wasn’t moved by this at all. Rather, she was nauseated at the sight of the boy’s body. It has bene hard enough for her to bathe him.”

Behind Lapvona’s strange hilarity and smooth prose is a scathing lampoon of society’s fundamental social-economic inequality — divided along lines of class, gender, and religion — a portrait of haves and have nots all the more apt for the damning parallels the book draws between the world within its pages and the one without — modern America, indeed, is all too fitting an avatar for a deranged medieval wasteland reeling between famine and plague. Moshfegh has made a remarkable career out of technical skill, narrative audacity, and dark humor, and in many ways, her latest effort is her strongest. Lapvona is at once thoroughly entertaining, meticulously crafted, and unsettlingly thought-provoking, and it seems a bit much to ask any more of a novel than that.

By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Press
Published June 21, 2022