Excrement is all over Lapvona, Ottessa Moshfegh’s depraved but incredibly dull fourth novel. Faeces are caked onto bodies, smeared onto bedsheets and gobbled up to ward off starvation. For the writer, bodily functions have always served as a window – or maybe more acutely, a cavity – into the shame and disgust that ravages the mind. But in this novel, the sordid is simply a cheap gimmick – deployed without the insights into boredom, desire or grief that characterised her previous books.
The book is set in the imaginary mediaeval cesspit Lapvona, a village somewhere in Europe. The narrative takes place over one year in which power switches hands, family ties are tested, and famine and drought decimate the little town. But really, not much changes: torment is unrelenting and unending. The characters are a carousel of clichés: Villiam, the lord of the village, is an ugly brat in constant need of attention and entertainment. Marek, a deformed, submissive bastard, is pathetic and pious. Barnabas, a corrupt priest, is selfish and slothful. Ina, a withered wet nurse turned witchdoctor is full of supernatural grace. For these pitiful creatures, enlightenment or spiritual salvation remains perpetually out of grasp, yet divinity is always worth dying for.
Often Moshfegh’s prose can deliver observations and denouements with blunt force – take this excerpt from her widely popular second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, about New York art men: “... they were ashamed of their own sexual inadequacies, afraid of their own dicks, afraid of themselves. So they focused on ‘abstract ideas’ and developed drinking problems to blot out the self-loathing they preferred to call ‘existential ennui’.” But in her latest novel, the brutality is bogged down by plot and complicated by her choice to include the perspectives of various Lapvona townsfolk. Her sentences are too controlled and too predictable.
In her previous work – particularly the short stories – Moshfegh perfected a particularly contemporary brand of American destitution. In comparison, the squalidly primitive world she renders in Lapvona feels half-baked. It reads like some scatological, smutty Game of Thrones fan fiction, rarely funny or even particularly shocking. The novel trudges through perversions as if Moshfegh is dutifully ticking off a list: cannibalism, mutilation, rape, self-flagellation. The more she piles on, the more tiresome and unimaginative it all becomes.
Where cruelty and filth once enriched Moshfegh’s mordant character studies, in Lapvona they merely amount to shallow nihilism. One could prise out some rote ideas about self-serving virtue, corrupted power and perpetual suffering from the novel, but amid plague and war, who needs such an obvious and futile reminder?
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, $32.99 (hardback)
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "Lapvona, Ottessa Moshfegh".
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