By Ottessa Moshfegh
304 pages. Penguin Press. $27.
Ottessa Moshfegh has a sparkling intellect and an inextinguishable dark spirit. Only the latter is exposed in “Lapvona”, his fourth novel. It’s a tangy but flat book, narrow in its emotional range, a dark, twisty, muddy mix of fairy tale and folk horror.
“Lapvona” is set in a fictional medieval village in what appears to be Eastern Europe. The main character is Marek, a particularly simple and disadvantaged young man. (He’s only 13, but kids grow up fast in Lapvona.) Marek has a twisted spine, a misshapen, veiny head, and a bulbous nose; her lips look like fish lips; its chin is a “stump” and its wide, thin tongue a strip of tissue. Her hair is so red it’s “a joke color”.
For his looks, he can thank his mother, Agata, who tried vigorously to abort him, stuffing poisonous weeds between his legs, jumping from trees, and charging someone to try and scratch the fetus.
Earlier, she was raped and had her tongue cut out. Jude, Marek’s apparent father, is a lamb farmer who kept Agata tied up and also raped her. She runs away wisely after giving birth; Marek learns that she is dead.
The atrocities are piling up. It’s easy to lose track. “The bandits returned at Easter”, begins this novel. “This time they massacred two men, three women and two young children.” It is especially easy for concentration to wander because no one is quite what they seem and because little is happening in terms of resonance. I’m looking at my notes to write this because it’s all a blur in my head.
Jude, who like all Lapvonians is illiterate, beats Marek and throws shovels at him and breaks his teeth. Marek likes these shots; he believes they bring him closer to God. The same goes for self-flagellation, which Jude and Marek ecstatically perform.
On a hill, watching the poor Lapvonians, is Villiam, a cruel and foolish lord who lives in a landed estate and visits the wickedness of the people to keep them in place. Thanks to a scheme, Marek comes to live with Villiam. He has his own maid, who uses her fingernail daily to scrape the white scum from his remaining teeth.
The foam is a uniquely Moshfeghian detail. She’s a Croatian-Iranian American writer, born in 1981, who flies low over human bodies, like a pilot more in love with strip mines than lakes, noting things like pus, acne, scars and vomiting.
She draws from what Stanley Elkin called “the range of the strange”. As in the Stevie Nicks-Tom Petty song, someone is always on the verge of cooking a meal for a bright-eyed child.
Another reference is the Marquis de Sade, who found ugliness more irresistible than beauty and located pleasure in pain. “The time has come, dear reader, to prepare your hearts and minds for the most impure history ever written,” de Sade wrote in “The 120 Days of Sodom.” Sounds Moshfeghy to me.
“Lapvona” is vigorously written bluntly. The sentences seem to have been composed in lead and enclosed in typography. What’s missing is Moshfegh’s destructive spirit.
A reader might seek to interpret this novel allegorically. “Lapvona” to some extent portends the prejudice that led to the Holocaust. Northerners are considered tall, strong, and clean, while Lapvonians are considered dark-haired and dirty. Villiam, the lord, may look like Donald Trump. A drought that nearly wipes out the city evokes both Covid and global warming. An unlikely Christ child appears on the horizon. However, the novel lacks an attitude, a position vis-à-vis this material.
I omitted two crucial characters. One is Ina, a blind, elderly nanny who has lived in a cave for decades. (A lot of attention is paid to leaky breasts in this novel.) Ina becomes an unlikely instigator of lust, and she gets away with what I’m sure is the only funny line in this novel. When asked if she wanted to go to heaven, she said, “It doesn’t matter. I won’t know anyone. Ina smokes weed with a pipe that could have been someone’s forearm.
The other is Lispeth, the young servant who takes care of Marek. She’s an imp, a curmudgeon, a furry soul. It is regularly degraded. In one scene, to entertain the lord, she is forced to swallow a grape that Marek has been ordered to rub on her anus. She takes revenge by regularly spitting in Villiam’s soup.
No one tattoos the food horror page quite like Moshfegh. There is cannibalism in this novel; a character regurgitates a little toe with its little fingernail sticking out. Ingesting dead spiders revives a starving woman. Flies are on everything; potatoes are buggy. Vomiting is a constant reflex.
Moshfegh is one of the most interesting living writers, but “Lapvona” is a dark, punitive, and oddly flavorless banquet.