Ottessa Moshfegh’s fourth novel, Lapvona, is a gruesome experiment in historical fiction. There’s grisly death, cannibalism, rape, mysticism, deception, revenge, hints at pedophilia, and very little love. The characters bleakly reflect the worst in humanity, and grotesque antics dot almost every page—facts that compete with great storytelling and end up creating few opportunities for enjoyment.
Lapvona, a small medieval village of vague Eastern European whereabouts, is known for its fertile soil and fruitful crops, where “all the wealth was what could grow in its dirt.” An attack on the village by bandits quickly reveals how the townspeople view themselves, God, and each other, not really trusting any of the above.
The fiefdom is governed by Villiam, a greedy, gluttonous lord who lives at the top of a hill that overlooks the village. When the bandits come to rape and pillage Lapvona, the townspeople hang them, believing they are enacting justice. Meanwhile, Villiam is actually behind it all. Any time he senses that there are conflicts between farmers down below, he sends in fake bandits to cause trouble: “Terror and grief were good for morale, Villiam believed.” The lord also views such interfering as a game to keep himself entertained.
Just below the manor lives the shepherd’s son, Marek. This thirteen-year-old, with his misshapen head and twisted spine, is “a small boy” who has “grown crookedly.” He lives alone with his abusive father, Jude, a hyper-religious and angsty man who “admonished vanity as a cardinal sin.” The two of them punish themselves in efforts to invite more of God’s love, Jude even lashing himself as a ritual. Jude resents Marek’s existence because of lies surrounding his birth, which unfold later on.
After Marek gets mixed up in some drama that results in the death of Villiam’s son, Marek’s life changes—seemingly for the better, but he’s just as miserable as ever.
If Marek and Jude represent piety and some kind of twisted virtue, Villiam represents excess and selfishness. He deprives the villagers of water during the worst drought they’ve ever seen, as people perish or are driven to do horrific things, all while Villiam thrives, demanding to be continuously fed and entertained. He and his cagey wife, Dibra, despise one another, but he always has Father Barnabas, the village priest, by his side as an accomplice.
Truth is elusive for most characters in this book. They don’t know who their real parents are or whether they’re the real father of their children. People go missing and the villagers make up stories for what happened to them. They intentionally tell one another lies to serve their own selfish desires. In the end, no one is safe from fate, no matter who was gluttonous and who was righteous.
Ina is the only character who understands what’s real. Known as the village witch, she was the wet nurse for most of the villagers when they were children (and suckles some of them in adulthood). She developed vast knowledge about herbs and healing remedies after living outside civilization on her own for many years, but many people distrust her. Her role in Marek’s and Jude’s lives, as well as the fiefdom’s trajectory, ends up fascinating, if not disturbing.
In her old age, Ina seems to grow stronger the more the villagers take from her. She denies the God worshipped in the village’s church, instead pursuing deeper connections to more earthly deities. It’s almost as if Moshfegh uses her to suggest that pursuing truth, and uncovering these more meaningful godly connections, is rewarded, while dwelling within our inherent selfishness, which can even take the form of blind religious belief, ultimately leads to catastrophe. (After all, the book’s epigraph is a line from a Demi Lovato song: “I feel stupid when I pray.”)
Moshfegh has written a novel that’s not without humor, but is certainly grim and brutal. Everyone hates each other in Lapvona, with very few exceptions. The story examines the boundaries between savagery and stability, religion and desire, truth and deception, and Moshfegh delivers surprise after sinister surprise. The setting is quite a divergence from Moshfegh’s previous works, but her sharp storytelling and exceptional character studies are once again omnipresent in Lapvona.
By Ottessa Moshfegh
Published June 21, 2022