Review: The waste of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, ‘Lapvona’

On the shelf


By Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin: 320 pages, $27

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It’s “pink and slimy” in Melissa Broder’s The Fishes. Ling Ma’s “Severance” has “an ugly sea cucumber”. In Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Lapvona,” the rotten penis referred to is described as “greasy,” and while I know she didn’t begin this daisy chain of repulsive anatomical description, I blame her most for the sheer abundance of it. This is their territory.

“Greasy penis” is the ultimate Moshfegh-like pairing: sex-adjacent but not alluring. It means doubly glandular dirt and manual labor, and it’s just mundane enough to piss you off for caring how gross it is.

Moshfegh, in her fourth novel, thrives in the swamp, a happy little worm that slides dirt down her esophagus. Reading their work, I picture Monty Python’s downtrodden serf exclaiming, “There’s some lovely dirt down here,” happily reaping a great heap of smacking mud.

No wonder, then, that Moshfegh ended up with a novel set in the Middle Ages. Lapvona is a medieval domain with Eastern European overtones – a Magda and a Grigor and a Dibra wander about. The setting: wind-rustling forests and mountains, muddy smells and more sheep than a Scottish postcard (until Moshfegh gets his hands on the place and dries it up in a Sahara).

There’s a ravenous priest and a power structure so crooked that this grotesque little fable somehow becomes workplace satire, like much of Moshfegh’s earlier work. Except in this case the office is a fief and instead of cubicle spats there are scavenging bandits, a punishing drought, and an unfortunate episode of cannibalism ending in “a broken little toe, small and roasted, with the little nail sticking out.”

After Moshfegh cranked her perversity up to 11 in her fiction – in “Eileen” the main character lets her crotch barehanded in public and in “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” another character grows her anus in her sleep – Moshfegh can not resist throwing everything she has at “Lapvona”. The main character soils himself for 40 pages. He sucks on his 100-year-old wet nurse’s papery nipples until “her pubis is throbbing and giving off an odor.” There is much more. Filth, famine, pillory, infection, smashed skulls, rape, hanging, self flagellation, ripped off eyeballs, replaced eyeballs, and a cluster that weaves its way from one rectum to another orifice. Also murdered children everywhere. But somehow not a gram of feeling.

"Lapvona" by Ottessa Moshfegh

Subtlety, in case you couldn’t tell, isn’t Moshfegh’s forte. Villiam, the lord of Lapvona, bears the name so much like the word “villain” that autocorrect fights my typing. And though “Lapvona’s” locus eventually wanders up the hill to his stately mansion, the story rather belongs to Marek, a “malformed” 13-year-old boy with a “misshapen” head, a “twisted” spine and “crooked” legs, the product the rape and a failed herbal abortion, cursed from the moment his lumpy ginger head fell from his wretched mother’s body onto the clay soil of his shepherd father.

As far as plot goes, there’s a lot. However, it is sprinkled on top like the crumb on a cake, added for some crunch but ultimately not baked. Marek, who shares Moshfegh’s belief that pain is good, that it eventually “brings him closer to his father’s love and compassion.” sins too deep for mere spanking. He is taken to Villiam’s mansion and left there, causing Lapvona – both the town and the novel – to spiral out of control.

In its best moments, “Lapvona” accompanies the ancient nurse Ina from her time as a young girl through the illness blinded her and into the cave, where she survived for decades on roots and grasses, cultivating her role as a mystic. What’s amazing is how lazily Moshfegh can describe beauty when she wants to. The “silver bark” on apple trees “thick as armor and laced high with the scars of years and years where villagers carved their names with Xs”. The camomile, cornflowers, ferns, irises and rustling grasses of the fields.

But the balance is tilted so far towards darkness that even if we read this as a fallen paradise – salvation is the hope and prayer of all characters, even the fool Villiam – it’s hard to see what message this world has for us has, except that life is hell. “Lapvona” is an acid test, as if Moshfegh wants to break the reader to see if the novel can reach beyond its audience.

Characters in Moshfegh’s most successful work have always used the social contract to wipe their asses. The title character in “Eileen” loves dirt (she keeps a dead mouse in her truck glove compartment and revels in her poop) so she doesn’t have to worry about not fitting in. The unnamed protagonist in My Year of Tranquility and Relaxation fights back against the early surge of self-branding and the avid workaholic by slipping into a coma. This novel was also secretly about 9/11—both the cost of solipsism and the limits of dissatisfaction. His shock and awe carried some cultural weight. But with “Lapvona” I feel only dyspepsia.

I am angry at the waste – not the abundant human waste, but the missed opportunities. Moshfegh is a brilliant chronicler of the utter corruptibility of every small dose of power, and a medieval town on the verge of realizing the violence inherent in the system (there are those Monty Python peasants again) is just the place for its sober one Joke.

Jacques-Louis David’s 1798 painting, Portrait of a Young Woman in White, used for the cover of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, has gained a new cult following since the novel was published. (You can buy a cloth mask, which is a shortened version with no face but a barely covered nipple front and center—a detail Moshfegh would probably like.) I often visit the original on the second floor of the National Gallery in Washington, where the young lady is appears alternately angry, dismissive and bored, perhaps depending on my own mood.

‘Lapvona’ attempts a similar trick with Francisco de Zurbarán’s ‘Agnus Dei’, whose theme is a lamb bound and sacrificed. Where David’s painting captures the eternal despair of modern life inherent in My Year, the Zurbarán fools us into expecting a very different novel. Here is this fluffy white creature, submissive and ready for the bloodbath that is about to come, a pure being, far above the dirt. On the other hand, we may be the lamb.

Kelly’s work has been published in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. Review: The waste of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, ‘Lapvona’

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