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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Ottessa Moshfegh's 'Lapvona' Is the Feel-Bad Hit of the Summer

The response to the brazenly unpleasant Lapvona is as divisive as it gets for a contemporary book. This is a good, good thing.

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Image for article titled Ottessa Moshfegh's 'Lapvona' Is the Feel-Bad Hit of the Summer
Image: Penguin Press

Could it be a coincidence that Ottessa Moshfegh’s brazenly unpleasant new novel, Lapvona, was released on the first day of summer this year? I can’t imagine that it is. The timing works in deadpan harmony with the book’s content, a seemingly medieval-set story that marries gory fairytale vibes with contemporary cynicism over a society that is on its way to hell, if not already charred by flames lit from within. The idea of this grotesquerie—in which abuse and humiliation are the norm, and cannibalism, degradation, human starvation, and rape are key features—being someone’s beach read isn’t funny haha, per se, but it strikes such an ironic image as to be hilarious. It’s like noticing a deflated eggplant pool float hanging out of the mouth of the great white shark that is barreling your way.

The book is so pungent with suffering that an ocean breeze would do nothing to mask its misery. It’s not just the gore—the dismemberment of a corpse to feed a hungry witch during a plight; the flapping eyeball on the dead body of a teenager. It’s not just the abuse—the lord of the setting Lapvona, Villiam, has a servant pelted with a grape that’s been rubbed on an asshole for his entertainment in a shit-dark comedic scene that would have fit well into Pier Paolo Pasolini’s de Sade adaptation Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. The book is difficult beyond its gag-reflex testing proclivities. A shifting third-person point of view thrusts us into the minds of some dozen characters, often within the same scene and sometimes within the same paragraph. I haven’t read a book this in love with its own omniscience since Frank Herbert’s similarly shifty Dune. It’s as though Moshfegh, who until Lapvona had written her novels in the first person, just discovered a new super power and is eager to show it off. What if the mass thought-sharing capabilities that Twitter allows were grafted onto old-timey feudal living? What if God was one of us?

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In Lapvona, Moshfegh surveys the selfishness at every level of the social ladder and throws up her hands. Sometimes all you can do is laugh, right? Lapvona is as rigid as a burlap shirt but unfolds like a soap opera, regularly rolling out new reveals. (For that reason, some of the plot points discussed in this review could be considered spoilers.) The effect of these somewhat discordant sensibilities is to electrocute any notion of a high/low culture divide. As prim as the novel can be, it is almost devoid of pretense. The characters say what they think, or if they don’t, we get to read their thoughts anyway. There’s an uncommon focus on dreams, which seem to be inconsequential to the plot, insofar as the book has one (the overall effect is more like observing Moshfegh play with the literary dolls she just cut out). Moshfegh, whose last book, 2018's My Year of Rest and Relaxation, found her protagonist largely unconscious, shares a surrealist’s fixation on the dream world. Visual artist Louise Bourgeois once said that “the surrealists made a joke of everything. And I consider life a tragedy.” Moshfegh’s wry depiction of human misery suggests that those two world views need not be mutually exclusive.

Author Ottessa Moshfegh in 2018.
Author Ottessa Moshfegh in 2018.
Photo: Roberto Ricciuti (Getty Images)
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The book’s ostensible protagonist, 13-year-old disabled peasant Marek relishes his father’s abuse in a manner that sometimes takes on an erotic, masochistic bent (“He, too, enjoyed the pain, and he was ashamed of that”) but mostly derives from piety (“Marek was heartened by his father’s renewed disdain, as this made God love him more through pity”). Because we can read other characters’ thoughts, we get to see them call bullshit on each other. “Villiam thought Marek’s waking martyrdom was a kind of barbarian vanity,” writes Moshfegh. Villiam, meanwhile, hires bandits to terrorize the poor people he rules over and plunders their resources (“Terror and grief were good for morale, Villiam believed”). He hosts an eating competition while the people of Lapvona starve and when he is presented with his dead son, he asks with a chuckle, “Is that an eye hanging out?” The forest-dwelling witch Ina is a wet nurse for the village—but to mitigate any potential selflessness one might suspect derives from her service, nursing actually restores the blind woman’s sight temporarily. No one in this book thinks for very long outside of their own self interests. Moshfegh has long been fascinated by the disgusting products of human bodies, and in Lapvona egocentric thinking is presented as the body’s most unseemly function.

Moshfegh’s cynicism and her unabashed refusal to make her books safe spaces gives her a sort of Gen X sensibility (she was born in 1981, and so by most measures she just missed the cut-off for that generation). She doesn’t display virtue, which may be interpreted itself as a display of virtue, but it nonetheless is refreshing to see someone who doesn’t package herself as user-friendly. Reading her is like being kissed by lips as sweet as ethylene glycol.

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Moshfegh trades in negativity, which means that she effectively offers herself up for brutal criticism. Those who might think better of taking down a book they don’t like that is bland or cheery in tone may feel more justified throttling something that is more or less predicated on contempt for humanity. At least, that’s my theory on why the glee behind some takedowns of Lapvona is so palpable. Something else that may factor in is Moshfegh’s literary status. She is so synonymous with contemporary cerebral literature that people actually believe that her cultural position is about as charmed as it can get. They want to dunk on her. After a brief history of Moshfegh’s literary scatology in a highly entertaining and enlightening review, New York’s Andrea Long Chu rips in: “Moshfegh’s latest piece of shit is her new novel, Lapvona.” “It’s hard to see what Moshfegh is trying to achieve other than notoriety,” writes The New Statesman’s Johanna Thomas-Corr. “Ottessa Moshfegh is a literary hack who just wants to shock people,” claims the Times Literary Supplement’s Claire Lowdon. Even in a mostly positive review, The Observer’s Jamie Hood expresses a certain sympathy with Moshfegh’s haters.

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But there have been almost as many raves as there are pans of Lapvona, according to the review aggregator Bookmarks. In terms of its divisiveness, the only novel released this year that comes close is Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise. Go down the Lapvona blurbs on Bookmarks and it’s like every reviewer read a different book. Lapvona is “utterly odd, wickedly funny, and sharply satirical.” In Lapvona, “what’s gone missing is Moshfegh’s destroying wit.” It’s “deliriously quirky.” It’s “too puerile and dumb to excite any reaction beyond impatience.” “Some of her sentences dazzled me so much I had to put the book down and sun myself in the light of her prose for a moment,” writes one reviewer. “The prose, as elsewhere in Moshfegh’s oeuvre, is occasionally vivid, but mostly lazy,” writes another.

In Lapvona, Moshfegh has designed cacophony of competing thoughts, and the critical response to the book has yielded noise similar in density. I find this thrilling. The notion of monoculture has long since faded, and so it says something of a writer’s power when she can command any consensus at all; here it is not a uniformity of opinion that is characterizing the mass response to Moshfegh’s book, but the intensity behind those varying opinions. The strength of Moshfegh’s own character—her presence in her work has never been more pronounced than in Lapvona, where her diligent omniscience renders her godlike—is impossible to ignore.

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Image for article titled Ottessa Moshfegh's 'Lapvona' Is the Feel-Bad Hit of the Summer
Illustration: Penguin Press

Even a takedown of the book as epic in scale as Long Chu’s aforementioned New York essay can’t help but express admiration for Moshfegh—the review is so observant of Moshfegh’s themes and quirks that it reads like a tribute, making the case for its disappointment by establishing how highly Long Chu thinks of Moshfegh. In fact, I can’t decide whether I like Lapvona or Long Chu’s assessment of it more; I’m glad to live in a world where I don’t have to choose.

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I do, however, take issue with Long Chu’s claim that Moshfegh “continues to write as if her readers are fundamentally beneath her; as if they, unlike her, have never stopped to consider that the world may be bullshit; as if they must be steered, tricked, or cajoled into knowledge by those whom the universe has seen fit to appoint as their shepherds.” Maybe it’s because I found Moshfegh extremely easy to vibe with when we talked via phone in 2018 and am consequently biased, but I think Moshfegh writes to connect with her people. I think that she writes with the expectation that her reader already believes the world is bullshit, and that if not, her books will be all the more punishing. Win/win.

In surveying the Lapvona reviews, I notice a certain frustration at the inability to ascertain what it all means. Again, I think much of the burden here comes down to negativity—Moshfegh’s violence and hopelessness is expected to serve a greater cause or risk being written off as gratuitous. Certainly, there is plenty in the book that speaks to the moment. For one thing, Marek is a product of incestuous rape, and when he reunites with the woman that attempted to abort him, she refuses to connect with him. She made her choice. For another, what Lapvona really gets at is selfishness’s cancer on society, which is abundantly apparent in her characters and the world around us. If we figured out a way to share and respect the earth, it wouldn’t be burning. Moshfegh gestures toward that with a funhouse mirror that both reflects sad truths and creates amusing embellishments. She sculpts contemporary misery like clay, if for nothing else than to create a diversion. She writes novels, not prescriptions.