Ottessa Moshfegh’s Cruel Worlds

A Cruel World

Ottessa Moshfegh’s medieval fable.


Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest book, Lapvona, is a masterful and excruciating novel about a village of idiots. How do we know that they’re idiots? Because the narrator says so, constantly, mercilessly, and in every possible way. Even before the narration begins, their idiocy is made clear in an epigraph borrowed from a Demi Lovato song: “I feel stupid when I pray.” But Lovato has one up on Lapvona’s characters. At least the singer has enough self-awareness to recognize stupid behavior.

The characters largely do not, and the narrator’s steady ridicule of them continues to the final, murderous scene, which would be a devastating tragedy of Shakespearean proportions if it weren’t first and foremost an act of drastic stupidity. As a result, Lapvona is more puppet show than Shakesperean tragedy—there is hilarity, but scenes where there might be gravity often just trigger a facepalm.

This is not to say that the story is not complex and cleverly wrought. The characters’ compounding mistakes and misunderstandings drive an ingenious plot. The result is dramatic irony par excellence. Yet all that relentless insistence that the characters are fools, almost too foolish to warrant attention, puts the reader in a position much like Lovato’s: praying for something—for the novel to deliver some kind of enlightenment to these people, perhaps—but feeling idiotic for having desired or believed in deliverance.

By all appearances, the town of Lapvona is a medieval fiefdom. Moshfegh does not tell us where or when the novel is set, but one might guess somewhere in Central Europe, maybe sometime between 1100 and 1500. Information about the world beyond Lapvona is equally sketchy: Fair-haired “Northerners” sometimes arrive in town; people from the “South” are considered even stupider than Lapvonians; and there are a few references to other fiefdoms with other made-up names (Iskria, Torqix). In general, the village is self-contained and something of a microcosm: a stage set for Moshfegh’s cast.

The novel opens with what appears to be a random act of violence. In the first scene, a group of bandits raid a Lapvonian home, murdering seven people and making away with a few paltry stores. But one of the marauders is captured. A boy named Marek, who passes for the book’s protagonist, trudges out of the village where a grave for the dead is being dug and runs across the tied-up hostage. Taking in the gruesome, bleeding man, he decides to kiss him—not out of compassion for him but out of a feeling of religious compulsion, which leads him to feel “addicted to suffering.” God, he is convinced, will reward him for doing unpleasant things.

Marek is disfigured, slovenly, and wretched. He has “grown crookedly” because his mother tried to terminate her pregnancy. His rib cage protrudes awkwardly and painfully. “His legs were bowed,” the book tells us. “His head was also misshapen.” Because of his congenital condition and chronic malnutrition, Marek’s growth has been stunted; he’s 13 years old but looks like he’s 8. He has a bizarre, confused, servile attachment to an abusive, Old Testament–style God. Without understanding why, he is occasionally stirred to acts of violence. And, yes, he is “an idiot.”

Although Marek leads the story, the omniscient narrator methodically zooms in on many of the other villagers too, introducing each with impeccable timing (one can almost hear the whispered instructions to enter stage left). We meet Marek’s father, Jude, the village lamb herder, who abuses his son with almost as much fervor as he flagellates himself. “If my father kills me I’m sure to go to heaven,” Marek tells himself between Jude’s kicks and punches. “Blood was the wine of the spirit, was it not?” Marek and Jude, who is also “a stupid man,” live in a hovel. They are poor, filthy, illiterate, and probably have scurvy. They don’t question their lot. Like everyone else in the village, they assume that the bandit raid was an act of divine punishment. But if they had “any sense,” they would notice that the bandits are regularly hired by their lord, Villiam, who lives in a state of depraved luxury in a hilltop manor. Villiam sends his henchmen into the village to murder or poison Lapvonians whenever they begin “hoarding foodstuffs” or complaining about their poverty.

Villiam hears such rumors about the villagers from the corrupt local priest, Barnabas, who propagates an improvised version of Catholicism among his parishioners (it’s not like any of them can read the Latin Bible). His weak opiate works on the masses of Lapvona, because remember, they are idiots. “The priest had no sympathy for such stupid people. And yet he didn’t see the hypocrisy of his disdain, as he was stupid, too.”

As for Villiam, Moshfegh hyperbolizes his loathsomeness to Disney-villain proportions. When we first meet him, he’s asleep, in the middle of a dream that his sumptuous bed is made of human flesh. After awakening, he insists that a red carpet be rolled from his bedchamber so that he can make a magnificent entrance before his servants, who hate him. He spends his days demanding silly entertainments, fucking his attendants, having petulant tantrums, and gorging on food and drink, although he remains hideously skeletal, like an “insect.” Villiam is a manchild, but unlike Marek, he’s a grownup, with adult power. All the same, he appears to have fallen ass-backwards into his lordship. His claim to the fiefdom is based on a made-up lineage.

A medievalist might balk at the Dark Age clichés that abound in Lapvona. The village is home to a cultureless population with no sense of its own subjugation and no political consciousness, one that could be described in the same terms as Jude’s breeding ram: “strangely complicit in his own imprisonment.” That “strangely” is important: Moshfegh does not attempt to explain Lapvonian complicity; she only states, weirdly and repeatedly, that this is the way they are. Of course, this is far from realistic when it comes to either the human condition or historical circumstance. One might note, for instance, that during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church’s brokering of contact with the divine through wealthy clergymen like Barnabas was the cause of many violent peasant revolts. Even the lowliest medievals had civic tradition, historical memory, and class consciousness.

Yet Moshfegh clearly has no concern for historical specificity; she is using premoderns as shorthand for the generally unenlightened. She invokes many familiar medieval tropes in order to exploit them for farce. But unlike in her first book, McGlue, set partly in Salem, Mass., in 1851, and her more recent My Year of Rest and Relaxation, set just before 9/11 in New York (themselves absurdist takes on their time periods), Lapvona cannot plausibly be called historical fiction. Despite the novel’s medieval trappings, its story exists neither in historical time nor in future time. It exists in the no-time of the parable—albeit one Dyson-vacuumed of any trace of a moral message. Its plot is cyclical: It torques and twists, it tightens upon itself, it baffles. I suppose you could ask (and people will), “Is this a metaphor for the current moment?” or “Why this story now?” But the very notion that there is a “now” depends on a belief in linear progress that the novel belligerently resists.

In Lapvona, not only religious origin stories but also social and familial ones are vague or convoluted. Major traumas that might define village life—bandit raids, a plague that decimated half the population a generation earlier, a dreadful famine that occurs halfway through the book—are forgotten by the population as quickly as possible. Supposed blood relations repeatedly prove false; sons constantly turn out to be “bastards.” Jude vaguely remembers that Villiam is his biological cousin, and yet he has no idea why Villiam ended up a lord while he wound up destitute. If this were a play, the actors would be constantly switching costumes. A woman whose children were slaughtered by the bandits “coolly” explains: “They were my children…. And I’ll replace them if I want.”

The book’s sense of time is also cyclical: It is arranged into five seasons, beginning with spring. The summer section alternates between what’s happening down in the village and what’s happening up in the manor. In Lapvona, a months-long drought—which, coincidentally or meaningfully (you decide), begins the day after Marek commits an act of violence—causes a famine. People eat mud; when mud fails, they eat each other. Up in the manor, there’s no shortage of water or food. Villiam has stockpiled the village food stores and, in a feat of engineering, has also diverted the water that trickles down from the mountains to his garden. As the villagers perish, Villiam delights in such pastimes as commanding his (fake) son to rub a grape in his asshole and toss it into a servant’s open mouth.

Ass grapes, cannibalism, barfing, bleeding, tooth cracking, choking, shitting, worms—Lapvona has it all. I’ll admit it: I gagged when a starving Jude pukes up the toe of a man whose foot he has eaten. Moshfegh has addressed the grossness of her fiction in the past, witheringly so: “They wanted me to somehow explain to them how I had the audacity to write a disgusting female character,” she remarked in a New Yorker profile. It’s true that hand-wringing about unlikable female characters constitutes the most boring possible critique. But this book does not center on an unlikable female—it centers on an unlikable population, and its disgustingness comes from all directions, in streams of projectile vomit. Moshfegh is excellent at writing the nasty and knows it. One wants to refuse to take the bait by complaining, but I will say that at points I felt baited.

If you can make it through the 
particularly gruesome summer, fall 
delivers some small mercies. The plot becomes complicated and circles back on itself in truly inventive ways. For example, Marek’s long-lost mother returns from the nunnery where she’s been hiding and is sexually assaulted by a hallucinating Jude, who mistakes her for a ghost; later she arrives pregnant at Villiam’s manor, where Barnabas declares that she is still a virgin, and Villiam takes her as his bride. People continue to swap roles as parents, children, and spouses. They become more compelling as people; several laugh lines are delivered; and a glimmer of political awareness shines in the occasional Lapvonian eye.

Two not-quite-as-stupid characters come into focus. The first is Grigor, the oldest man in Lapvona, who, after suffering through the famine, has a minor breakthrough and becomes “open to change.” He starts “to suspect that life in Lapvona was not what he’d thought it was. He had worked so hard to feed himself and his family, believing it would earn him a seat in heaven. Now he knew he had been working, in fact, to make heaven on earth for the lord above.”

The second wiser person is Ina, the village witch, the only survivor of a long-ago plague that left her sightless. After decades exiled in a cave, experimenting with the healing powers of plants, Ina began to spontaneously lactate and returned to live on the town’s periphery, where she became Lapvona’s wet nurse. She is now maybe 100 years old. In a village where most die young, she is a bridge between generations and a source of nourishment—it is Ina who nudges Grigor toward his political awakening. And yet she does not represent anything like goodness, but rather shrewdness; Ina acts entirely out of self-interest, manipulating other people as needed. She wants to survive, and she’ll eat you if she has to.

Grigor and Ina might realize, Demi Lovato–style, that prayer is pointless, but their presence has very little effect on village life. Grigor’s epiphany is a relief—someone gets it!—but in a village of idiots, one wise old man is not enough. “A more discerning group of people might have questioned” their lot, the narrator tells us. “But nobody questioned anything. There was no mob, no uprising.” Oh, well. Grigor concludes: “They were idiots.”

Throughout Lapvona, Moshfegh stubbornly resists the central writing-class tenet of developing her characters’ inner lives. For example, it’s impossible to discern whether Marek is stirred to acts of violence because he is woefully misguided, is traumatized beyond words, or is pathologically cruel. That Marek’s life is abject and hopeless is abundantly clear—so what to make of the flat statement that he is “happy” after being beaten? Or 
that in the village “everyone looked happy” because of the mere fact that “they were no longer starving”? Or that Villiam “was a happy person” even after seeing his son’s mutilated dead body? These statements might be read as a suggestion that ignorance is bliss, but bliss in these circumstances is patently unbelievable. If these people are human, ignorant or not, they are likely not happy. And so it comes across as though the narrator is mocking them for their misery, in what is essentially a formal exercise in brutal irony.

The novel’s biblical references are not subtle, but neither are they straightforward—instead, they’re wildly mashed up. It doesn’t take a close reading of the Gospels to see how Marek, a child raised among Jude’s lambs, might be proffered as a kind of Christ figure. But as the story evolves, a plethora of babies, boys, and men seem like they too could stand in for the Son of God, right up to Marek’s mother’s supposed virgin birth. Myriad other biblical allusions, from Villiam’s Edenic garden to Ina’s spontaneous lactation, are peppered throughout. A rigorous theologian may be tempted to tack up some red yarn and try to map out the patterns; however, if there’s an algorithm for the transpositions, I can’t parse it.

Marek might be read instead as a whacked-out version of Dostoyevsky’s famous Christ-like character, the innocent and infuriating Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Both Myshkin and Marek are misguided, unable to see the world around them as it really is, and both pretend to be passive bystanders. But while Myshkin is driven by noble motives, Marek’s are selfish and pathetic. While Myshkin is so stubbornly naive that others assume he is stupid, Marek might truly be innocent, because—if we choose to believe the narrator—he is actually stupid. The question in Lapvona is not whether a true Christ on earth would be insufferable because of his goodness, but whether goodness is a relevant way to evaluate human behavior.

It’s tempting to say that this book—which is about the badness of faith—was written in bad faith, but it would be more accurate to say that it was written in no faith at all. In Lapvona and across her work, Moshfegh’s most brilliant skill is her refusal to moralize. In this way, she marks out how much the reader desires to judge, to arbitrate, to know. Perhaps the impulse to ferret out motives or diagnose a condition—in a person, a village, or an epoch—is itself idiotic. At one point, Villiam asks sarcastically, “Am I a god? Do I control the weather?” He asks this as if he has no responsibility for anything, but in many ways he does control the weather—or at least the water supply. Similarly, the novel’s narrator disavows responsibility, purporting to state only the facts; but in truth, the narrator dislikes these village idiots. And if the omniscient narrator is the god of the story, then this god thinks you’re an idiot, too.

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