BOOK REVIEW: Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

Review by Thomas Huntington

Moshfegh’s prose cuts like a knife. She is sharp, almost aggressive with her description, effortlessly switching between bloodless misery and humour in the confines of a single beat. She is not afraid to be harsh on her characters and takes pleasure in exploring them to their fullness.

‘What about heaven, Ina? Don’t you want to go?’ ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘I won’t know anyone.’

Lapvona is a destitute township located somewhere in Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages. Within its boundaries, an unfurling cast of characters seek wisdom in self perpetuated religious dogma, finding pleasure in cruelty and survival in isolation.

The largely plotless story loosely follows Marek. He begins the story as a shepherd’s son, thought to be born cursed, who inadvertently rises from the barren pastures. He climbs all the way to the reaches of the lord’s manor, where corruption is a power that equals any God.

‘Please, don’t ask me about bones. Tonight, we will only talk about normal things.’
Marek nodded. He had no idea what that meant.

In Lapvona, a father who takes pleasure out of beating his son will have no moment of deplorable epiphany, for this is not the world that the book inhabits. Readers should expect no moral indicators at all—there is no good and bad in this world, only the miserable and those motivated enough to push others down in order to swim toward a barren shore.

Reading Lapvona, what struck me is Moshfegh’s keen attention to cruelty. In a landscape that seems cursed, even when exterior forces have willed it to be, every cruel action that Marek makes is rewarded by his life taking an upswing. As the plot progresses, his internal opinion of himself shifts from ‘deformed mother-killer’ to something resembling human. Only at this point does Marek find himself faced with the story’s true driving force: nihilistic eternity, that no change of heart will shift. Those that push and pull the town’s strings have no true objective. Lords will dry rivers with the flick of the wrist, holy men invent sermons at will. Those that are bred to serve the higher class feel no resignation in their duty, to them and to all characters in this story, practical alternatives are more fantastical than heaven itself.

This novel is an exploration of wall-to-wall bleakness and is at its best when it deviates from its baseline of misery. At its most sickly erotic or darkly funny, I felt rewarded for diving headfirst into this unforgiving atmosphere. During moments of intense desolation, the characters abandon both their inner and outer worlds, and resort to an animalistic depravity. My feelings at this novel’s lowest points is when seeing these characters at their most degraded feels like nothing more than an extension of what we have already seen. This is fine when wallowing in the sheer deprivation but does make the middle section feel gruelling. Reading on, I became gripped again when the story took a stranger, reflective turn.

In the modern publishing landscape, a plotless nihilistic novel that roots itself in cruelty is not something you are likely to discover easily. This may not completely absolve this novel of its flat middle section or tonal repetitions, but it is always a pleasure to read something different. In my opinion, this story succeeds when it takes itself less seriously and lets its dark eroticism and humour take centre stage.

While Moshfegh has rebuked any desire to create analogues for modern politics and culture, Lapvona’s greatest gift is an investigation into our most primal side. Stripped of context we are free to explore corruption, cruelty and depravity—an internal world that is the same now as it always has been. While I might not rush to jump back into Lapvona’s world again soon, its emptiness feels like something that will sit with me for a long time.

Lapvona was published by Random House UK and has an RRP of $32.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.

Thomas Huntington is an author, ghostwriter, and editor. Born in Melbourne, you can now find him scribbling his days away in Berlin, where he is the proud co-owner of over ten ramshorn snails. You can find his work at Soyos Books.