Review of the book Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

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In the 1500s and 1600s, bizarre paintings in caves and ruins were known as cavesche, the root, perhaps, of the modern word “grotesque”, a genre that delights in the ugly, the irregular and the strange. “Lapvona,” Ottessa Moshfegh’s fourth novel, generates her most grotesque vision yet, but the cave where her visions take place is a medieval village.

Readers are immersed from the first page in the slaughter of feudal villagers by rapacious bandits. Paid by Villiam, the lord who owns the land, the bandits are sent to attack whenever the farmers dissent, as a means of controlling them. Here, the villagers fight back. They crush a bandit’s foot and then pillory him, pelting him with animal excrement. The sweeping tapestry of violence is meticulously drawn, but the book quickly zooms in on an illiterate lamb farmer, Jude, and his 13-year-old son, Marek.

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Jude, a distant relative of Villiam, is a sadomasochist who whips himself and encourages his son to do the same. He tells Marek that his mother died in childbirth, although in fact Marek’s mother ran away after Jude repeatedly raped her and attempted to abort Marek, who has a twisted spine in result. When Marek throws a rock at Villiam’s well-to-do son, Jacob, in a fit of anger over their unequal situation, Jacob slides off the side of a cliff to his death.

Jude, who follows the saying “an eye for an eye”, makes a trade with Villiam: Marek for Jacob’s corpse. Subsequently, Jude does not miss the boy, even if he sometimes misses the opportunity to make Marek suffer: “although this thought crossed his mind – in the nocturnal hauntings of hunger so strong that it drove him to madness, too – that if the boy was there with him, he would have taken some pleasure in watching him starve to death, yes.

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The story of Marek’s rise after his father left him with Villiam intertwines with the disgusting soap opera of his family’s past, the strands mesmerizing as they twist and twist together. The novel’s unsettling intensity is reminiscent of Moshfegh’s famous “McGlue” and “Eileen,” but this story seems far more tumultuous, debauched, and voracious. It’s a biblically violent video game that flashes outrageous images of medieval cannibalism, rape, deformity, and incest. Horrifying images – a tongueless girl running away after giving birth; a blind woman used for decades as a wet nurse – a whirlwind passage, occasionally interspersed with an eerie tenderness, before returning to a more disturbing bloodbath to be told in very controlled prose.

Moshfegh’s depictions of nursing and descriptions of villagers consuming foraged foods and infused beverages align with the themes of the grotesque painting: fascination with ugliness and the open mouth. Humanity, in Moshfegh’s rendering of feudal village life, with its splendor of noxious odors and vivid sensuous detail, is inherently cruel, though this cruelty, perpetuated primarily by male characters, is chaotic and arbitrary in its particular manifestations. Marek especially feels the cruelty of Jude. Villiam’s sadism takes the form of humiliating jokes and puns. A pun, he said at one point to the servant who had ministered to Jacob: “Lispeth, I think you have taken a step in the sacrament. Come, show us the underside of your shoes.

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“Lapvona” is told in itinerant, close third-person, slipping between the perspectives of the characters from scene to scene. To my taste, Moshfegh’s elaborate sentences breathed more in her early short stories for the Paris Review and earlier books, when she was working in the first person. This approach allowed him to fully inhabit the consciousness of a character and to embody it more specifically. She relied more on the bodily fragility and the talkative momentum of the thoughts of her singular and unfortunate characters than on active violence. However, perhaps the clinically nihilistic perspective that emerges from the “Lapvona” bloodbath and its cascading horrors and loathings, inflicted and suffered from all sides, is perhaps the next natural step in the deep alienation that Moshfegh explores so often in his work.

The novel’s epigraph is a line from Demi Lovato’s song “Anyone”: “I feel stupid when I pray.” In the song, Lovato takes a deep breath before singing the following sad and heartfelt lines: “So why do I pray anyway/If no one’s listening.” But it’s the only tongue-in-cheek phrase on the page, the half-hearted shame of confession, that Moshfegh is looking for.

This is linked to the book’s tone of excessive religiosity. The irony is that while priests and nuns have a role in what happens, while God is referenced, while scenes escalate into a strange Christmas, nothing respectful or sacred seeps into the ethos. of the book. Instead, the startlingly frail tenderness that has punctuated Moshfegh’s earlier work is more bruised than ever in “Lapvona.” With its determined anomie and coolly beautiful phrases, this fable serves a dizzying, harsh, insistent cult of misanthropy.

Anita Felicelli is the author of the novel “Chimerica” and the collection of short stories “Love Songs for a Lost Continent”.

Penguin Press. 320 pages. $27

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