Review | In Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Lapvona,’ alienation turns to violence

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In the 1500s and 1600s, bizarre paintings in caverns and ruins were known as grottesche, the root, perhaps, of the modern-day word “grotesque,” a genre that delights in the ugly, irregular and strange. “Lapvona,” Ottessa Moshfegh’s fourth novel, generates her most grotesque vision yet, but the cave where her visions play out is a medieval village.

Readers are dropped on the first page into the slaughter of feudal villagers by rapacious bandits. Paid by Villiam, the lord who owns the land, the bandits are dispatched to attack whenever the farmers dissent, as a means of controlling them. Here, the villagers fight back. They smash one bandit’s foot then pillory him, pelting him with animal excrement. The panoramic tapestry of violence is meticulously drawn, but the book quickly zooms in on an illiterate lamb herder, Jude, and his 13-year-old son, Marek.

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Jude, a distant relative of Villiam, is a sadomasochist who whips himself and encourages his son to do the same. He tells Marek that his mother died in childbirth, though, in fact, Marek’s mother fled after Jude repeatedly raped her and attempted to abort Marek, who has a twisted spine as a result. When Marek throws a rock at Villiam’s well-off son Jacob in a fit of anger at their unequal circumstances, Jacob slips off the side of a cliff to his death.

Jude, who follows the dictum “an eye for an eye,” makes a trade with Villiam: Marek for Jacob’s dead body. Afterward, Jude doesn’t miss the boy, though he does sometimes miss the opportunity to make Marek suffer: “although the thought did cross his mind—in the late-night haunts of hunger so strong they drove him to near madness, too—that if the boy were there with him, he would have taken some pleasure in watching him starve, yes.”

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The story of Marek’s ascent after his father leaves him with Villiam intertwines with the gross-out soap opera of his family’s past, the strands mesmerizing as they twist and gnarl together. The disturbing intensity of the novel hearkens to Moshfegh’s acclaimed “McGlue” and “Eileen,” but this story feels far more riotous, debauched and voracious. It’s a biblically violent video game blinking outrageous images of medieval cannibalism, rape, deformity and incest. Gruesome images — a tongueless girl who flees after giving birth; a blind woman used over decades as a wet nurse — flash by, ever-so-occasionally interspersed with an odd tenderness, before returning to a bloodbath more disturbing for being related in a highly controlled prose.

Moshfegh’s depictions of nursing and descriptions of villagers consuming foraged foods and infused drinks align with the themes of grotesque painting: the fascination with ugliness and open mouths. Humanity, in Moshfegh’s rendering of feudal village life, with its resplendence of noxious smells and its vivid sensual detail, is fundamentally cruel, although this cruelty, mostly perpetuated by male characters, is chaotic and arbitrary in its particular manifestations. Marek senses the cruelty of Jude especially. Villiam’s sadism takes the form of humiliating jokes and wordplay. A punster, he says at one point to the female servant who had attended to Jacob, “Lispeth, I think you’ve stepped in sacrament. Come, show us the bottoms of your shoes.”

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“Lapvona” is told in a roving, close third person, slipping between characters’ perspectives from scene to scene. For my taste, Moshfegh’s crafted sentences breathed more in her early short stories for the Paris Review and earlier books, when she worked in the first person. This approach allowed her to inhabit a character’s consciousness fully and embody it more specifically. She leaned more on bodily frailty and the gabby momentum of her singular and hapless characters’ thoughts than on active violence. However, perhaps the clinically nihilistic perspective that emerges from the bloodbath of “Lapvona” and its cascading horrors and gross-outs, inflicted and suffered from every direction, is the natural next step of the profound alienation Moshfegh so often explores in her work.

The novel’s epigraph is a line from the Demi Lovato song “Anyone”: “I feel stupid when I pray.” In the song, Lovato takes a breath, before singing the following sad and sincere lines: “So, why am I praying anyway/If nobody’s listening.” But it’s the deadpan sentence alone on the page, the halfhearted shame of the admission, that Moshfegh is going for.

This is bound up in the book’s tone of excessive religiosity. The irony is that while priests and nuns have a part in what happens, while God is referenced, while the scenes escalate toward a strange Christmas, nothing reverent or sacred seeps into the book’s ethos. Instead, the surprising frail tenderness that punctuated Moshfegh’s earlier work is more battered than ever in “Lapvona.” With its determined anomie and its coldly beautiful sentences, this fable is in service to a stunning, hard, insistent worship of misanthropy.

Anita Felicelli is the author of the novel “Chimerica” and the short-story collection “Love Songs for a Lost Continent.”

Penguin Press. 320 pp. $27

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