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Ian Mond criticizes Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh – Locus Online

LapvoneOttessa Moshfegh (Jonathan Cape 978-0-59330-026-8, $27.00, 272pp, hc) June 2022.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Ottessa Moshfegh’s career that her fourth novel, Lapvone, takes place in a medieval stronghold. Starting with the publication of Mcglue – an experimental short story about the dark and violent exploits of a 19th century sailor – then his first (and confusing) novel, the shortlisted Man Booker Eileen – a dark, claustrophobic tale of alienation set in the 1960s – Moshfegh’s fiction defied easy categorization. An eclectic attitude extends to his most recent books, My year of rest and relaxation and Death in his hands. The former – a lockdown romance before lockdowns were a thing – has the quirky conceit of a woman who uses a cornucopia of drugs in her attempt to sleep all year, while the latter presents itself as a murder mystery that turns into a sad and disturbing story about old age, isolation and loneliness. So it makes sense that Moshfegh’s latest book is unlike anything that has come before it, a novel about religion, greed and self-esteem set in a fictional European village in the Middle Ages with its fair share of depravity, flogging and cannibalism.

The only structural trait common to Moshfegh’s earlier novels is that they are told from the perspective of a single female protagonist. Lapvone breaks that mold with a narrative that jumps penny-to-penny between multiple viewpoints. We begin with thirteen-year-old Marek, a little boy who has “grown up crookedly” with a twisted spine, bent legs and a deformed skull. Marek lives alone with his father, Jude, a shepherd who cares more for his flock than for his son. Their only common activity is the Friday self-flagellation fight, a devotional practice they enjoy a little too much. Back in the village, we meet Ina, a former blind nurse ”whose breasts fed half the population” of Lapvona. The villagers distrust his knowledge, his intrinsic, even supernatural understanding of the natural world, and yet for Marek, he is the only person who shows him affection. Sitting astride it all in his stone hilltop mansion is Villiam, the lord and governor of Lapvona. With a voracious appetite for food, sadism and cruelty, he uses the Church and the bandits that line the border of Lapvona to ensure that the villagers never hoard their crops or think of rebelling, even when a drought devastates the land. But when Villiam’s son and heir, Jacob, dies, falling from a mountain, startled by a boulder thrown by Marek, the governor decides to adopt the thirteen-year-old as payment for the loss of his family. This change in circumstances does little for Marek’s self-esteem, which is further undermined when his mother – whom Marek believed to be dead in childbirth – reappears, apparently pregnant with the Baby Jesus.

Those who have read Moshfegh’s collection, Homesickness for another world, will know that she has a predilection for rot and decay, for bodily fluids and physical disfigurement. Although it was a less overt proclivity in his novels, the general misery and violence of the Middle Ages allowed Moshfegh to indulge in this aspect of his work. She sets the tone from the start with two gripping descriptions of Marek’s birth defects, one from the perspective of an omniscient narrator: “His spine twisted in the middle so that the right side of his cage chest protruded from his torso…” and for a second said from his father’s point of view: ”Marek was ugly… [his] the face had an unseemly disproportion; the boy’s forehead was high and veined, his nose bulbous and crooked, his cheeks flat and pale, his lips thin, his chin shaped like a tip giving way to a neck wrinkled and soft, like skin draped over his throat. Later, when Marek has moved into the Governor’s mansion, his maid, Lispeth, is sickened by the body of “that deformed child”.

Moshfegh’s treatment of Marek might smack of ableism, given how much is made of the boy’s infirmities. It wouldn’t be the first time Moshfegh has been criticized for obsessing over her characters’ physical imperfections. In Lapvone, it’s clear that Marek’s ‘ugliness’ is in the eye of the beholder. For example, his touching relationship with Ina, whose shriveled body is similarly scrutinized – “her loose breasts looked more like flaps… her nipples were hanging down like little pebbles” – resulted in that beautiful, joyous moment when , after doing a little dance for Marek, and after he sucks Ina’s breasts, just like he did when he was a baby, they both fall into a peaceful sleep. (By the way, Ina is easily one of Moshfegh’s best creations, a complex, otherworldly and calculating character who at one point replaces her eyes with those of a horse). What becomes clear is that the true conception of ugliness in the novel is not physical but spiritual. It starts with Jude sexually abusing and beating his son’s living daylights to the extent that Marek comes to appreciate the pain, even seeks it out of Jude in the hopes that it will bring him ‘closer’ to love and of his father’s pity. “Then there is Villiam and his abuse of God and the Church via his weak factotum, Father Barnabas, all to maintain control of Lapvona. The result is a spiritually corrupt individual who cares little for the death of his child, regularly belittles staff, and, most shockingly of all, hoards water and supplies during a drought, leaving villagers to resort to cannibalism.

I am aware that Moshfegh’s work is an acquired taste. If you’ve ever bounced back to his previous novels, Lapvone is unlikely to change your mind. But for those, like me, who enjoy the excesses of Moshfegh’s fiction, his forensic examination of our flaws and our misanthropic tendencies, then Lapvone definitely hits the mark.


Ian Mond likes to talk about books. For eight years, he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently, he relaunched his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and again publishes mostly vulgar reviews of an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.


This review and others like it in the June 2022 issue of Venue.

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