Friday, July 1 2022

Lapvone is a dramatic departure for one of America’s most exciting and provocative young novelists. Ottessa Moshfegh has the rare distinction of being as critically acclaimed as she is widely read.

His debut in 2015, Eileenhas been shortlisted for the most prestigious awards on both sides of the Atlantic, while My year of rest and relaxation (2018), a disturbing study of chronic depression in the narcissistic culture of millennial New York, and Death in his hands (2020), a quieter work exploring the loneliness of old age and the consolations of fantasy, were both New York Times bestsellers.

But where his first three novels are set in late 20th and early 21st century America, Lapvone takes place in a vaguely medieval world where feudal power reigns and physical suffering is commonplace. The panoply of names with Greek, Hebrew and Slavic origins, and the mischievous menagerie of animals from disparate parts of the world, make it clear how futile it would be to attempt to place the novel in any time and place of the ” real world”, lending an allegorical air to the unfolding events.

These events revolve around the titular village of Lapvona and its ruling lord, Villiam, who resides in a mansion above the village and who ruthlessly extorts as much food and wealth as possible from the inhabitants, exploiting their religious superstitions and employing even bandits to conduct brutal raids at the slightest sign of unrest. Even a devastating drought that drives locals to cannibalism fails to stir up any real resistance.

But Villiam’s incomprehensible response to his son’s death at the hands of the village outcast Marek—adopting Marek in place of his son and refusing to acknowledge that Marek was not always his child—shatters Lapvona society and its reports. of precarious force, with almost universally disastrous consequences.

This is not a book for the faint hearted. The rape, incest, and dismemberment are all told with the nauseating eye for detail and unflinching detachment that has turned some readers away from Moshfegh’s earlier novels. Yet the violent and arbitrarily cruel world of Lapvona is arguably more suited to his talents than his usual contemporary settings. Particularly compelling is how Moshfegh’s compulsive fascination with all that is most base and grotesque in human life contrasts with extraordinarily lyrical evocations of the natural world.

Less entirely successful than the change of scenery — and, indeed, of genre, since this is a sort of medieval fantasy novel — is Lapvonechange of narrative orientation. Where Moshfegh’s other novels have all been told in the first person by a single female protagonist, the third-person narration of his final moves between the perspectives of a relatively large cast of colorful characters, who invariably display his characteristic fascination with strange, extreme or aberrant psychology. States.

On the one hand, Moshfegh presents an untested facility for quickly immersing readers in each character’s deeply idiosyncratic ways of experiencing the world. Weirdest of all is the novel’s most unquestionably magical character, the abnormally long-lived Ina, who survives many years alone in the forest despite her blindness thanks to the birds that communicate with her through song, and who returns to the village to nurse all her children for several decades.

This greater range of perspectives also allows Moshfegh to deepen his familiar preoccupation with the very diversity of human sexuality and the ease with which desire can redirect itself to all sorts of objects. At least half of the village’s male residents are obsessed with sucking the nipples of women of age to be their mothers or grandmothers, in what appears to be a search for comfort and calm as much as gratification. erotic. Particularly disturbing, in the area of ​​sexuality, is how social taboos on incest, pedophilia and rape seem to have no hold on the residents of Lapvona, where sex crimes are virtually commonplace. they passed over in silence.

On the other hand, the novel moves so quickly between its extraordinarily eccentric characters that it’s hard to become particularly invested in their (usually gruesome) fates. It seems that Lapvone is simply less interested in individuals than in describing the particular social ecosystems of a community, in which a sense of self is so dangerously dependent on one’s relationship to others.

However much of a departure Lapvone might be for Moshfegh, it’s as unlikely to put off his devoted readers as it is to please those who found his earlier novels simply too much to digest. The opening scene, in which Marek kisses a bandit’s head before his execution and tastes “the salt of the man’s sweat and the rancid oils embedded in his red hair”, is typical of his particular enthusiasm for bodily fluids.

Yet there is something undeniably salutary in Moshfegh’s brazen refusal to accept that pleasure and desire are the sole realm of beauty, his delight in the endless kinds of ugliness that can be coveted and loved.

Moshfegh’s daring adventure beyond his comfort zone in Lapvone is a welcome promise of all it has to offer American literature today.

Lapvone by Ottessa Moshfegh Jonathan Cape, £14.99 / Penguin Press $27, 320 pages

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