Medieval Times: On Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Lapvona”
By Francesca BillingtonJune 21, 2022
Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
Koller wandered around Southern California like this, plucking beams from a burned-down flour mill in Pasadena, stones from the old L.A. City Hall, the bell from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. He piled everything onto his plot of valley land and worked for 17 years. The shards would become Casa de Pájaros, a Spanish-style stone-and-brick house where Koller would live late into his life and, some 60 years later, the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh would write her latest novel. “I think he was a loner who wanted to live in a fortress,” Moshfegh has said of Koller. The house, nestled inside a glen, has only one significant window. In photos online, the rooms look dark and echoey. Moshfegh moved into that house with her husband, the novelist Luke Goebel, and then she built a second: a stone manor in a medieval village she named Lapvona.
Moshfegh begins a novel one of two ways. In the first scenario, a woman needs a drink. The unnamed protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation shuffles out of her apartment for bodega coffee. In Eileen, the titular character buys gin for her alcoholic dad. In the second scenario, there is death. In McGlue, a drunk sailor wakes up to learn he’s murdered his friend. Vesta Gul, a 72-year-old widow in Death in Her Hands, is walking through the woods when she finds a note: a woman named Magda has been killed. Somewhere sits a body.
Lapvona, Moshfegh’s fourth novel, opts for the latter. The book opens in a medieval village, from which it takes its name, on Easter Day. Seven people have been killed by bandits; their bodies will be buried tonight. This is how we meet Marek, our protagonist, a 13-year-old boy with a lopsided body not even a mother could love (though his is already dead). Marek’s spine twists in the middle, and his left arm is “hung loose from its socket.” He lives with his father, a shepherd named Jude, in a small cottage in the pasture.
The novel starts with bandits and slaughtering, but there’s more to Lapvona than death and gore. In it, the Middle Ages become a new container for old Moshfeghian themes: God, corruption, greed, sex, daddy issues, mommy issues, booze. The time period gives Moshfegh free rein to play with mystical characters like Ina, a blind wet nurse who breastfeeds the village children. (“With Marek sucking her nipple, they drifted off into a realm of quietude, like being adrift on the sea, although neither had ever seen the sea.”) The town’s social structure also guides its physical layout; pay attention to the architecture. Lapvona is divided in two, with a poor village at the bottom of a hill and royal manor on top. At first, villagers aren’t allowed past the drawbridge at the manor. Conflict builds over the course of a year, as characters start moving between the two regions.
Lapvona is divided the way Los Angeles is not, into seasons: spring, summer, fall, winter, spring. By the end of our first spring, we’ve toured both the village and the mansion where Lapvona’s governor and lord sleeps until noon. Villiam drinks wine first thing in the morning and eats sausage until he vomits. He orders his staff to perform shows (“How about a little song?”). His wife is sleeping with the horseman. Up here, corruption and deceit are par for the course. Even the town priest, Father Barnabas, is faking it: “He loved not the Christ but himself and the thrill of keeping people in line.” Father Barnabas barely knows what happened in the Bible. Jesus was born to a virgin, right?
Together, the priest and Villiam lie to the pious villagers. Moshfegh paints them as evil idiots: slimy and deceptive, and not very smart. It’s comedic relief draped in cruelty, or vice versa:
‘Father, what do you say when the people ask why it is so hot this summer?’
‘Oh, I say it’s because the Devil got out of hell and is on the loose, hungry for innocent souls. His fire has dried up the land. God has shut the gates of heaven to keep the Devil out.’ Of course, he told no one that Villiam was hoarding water in a reservoir up there. It was perfect water, clean and pure and cold as ice as it trickled down from the far mountains in underground streams.
‘Isn’t that a good story,’ Villiam said, splashing a bit feebly. ‘You really are a good priest.’
It’s a bleak, chaotic world where the rules mean nothing, and God acts like a cover for the lord’s lies. It should be exhausting (and sometimes it is, the bleakness teetering on horror), but Moshfegh leaves us her breadcrumbs of wit. You want more and more, hoping they’ll lead to a candy house of moral lessons. Reading Lapvona is like going to Medieval Times in Buena Park for a middle school field trip: you’re uncomfortable and confused, but you can’t look away. You’re not sure what’s a joke and you’re holding a turkey leg. The book’s epigraph is a song lyric by Demi Lovato.
The two versions of Lapvona run like tape on separate tracks until Marek accidentally kills the lord’s son. Instead of being punished, the mistake catapults Marek — a poor boy whose “sense of his own future was as stunted as the growth of his body” — into the lap of luxury. Jude offers Marek to the lord as a replacement child. The boy starts eating meat and wearing leather house slippers. He inherits Jacob’s servant, a blonde girl who smells like cabbage and “wiped his arse with a rag wetted in a bit of warm milk before putting him to bed.” Welcome to the good life.
But by the summer, Marek feels guilty. While he feasts and cracks crude jokes with Villiam, a drought turns villagers desperate and “bloodthirsty.” They swallow mud and gnaw on their dead neighbors. Where is God now? In what might be a first, Moshfegh lets the conditions of the natural world — climate and weather and agriculture — guide her plot. Eventually, the drought helps expose corruption in Lapvona.
These panoramic views of the town characterize Moshfegh’s biggest stylistic departure yet. She broke her own routine: Lapvona is her first novel in third person. For once, we don’t spend 300 pages inhabiting the mind of one character. This doesn’t mean she’s abandoned her flair for interiority, the motor in My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Death in Her Hands. Her characters still think their twisted, sad thoughts. Only this time, these moments get filtered through an omniscient narrator. This voice is blunt and brutal. Her prose is also uncomplicated. It retains a sense of distance while gently dipping into the characters’ psyches. The effect is almost folkloric: “Marek did nurse the ewes when Jude wasn’t looking. He pushed the babes away and put his mouth to the sheep’s teat and sucked until he felt sick. He felt this was his right as a child of God. He was a lamb himself.”
The first and only time I heard Moshfegh speak was last November. She addressed her audience wearing a striped button-down, her last name embroidered in red thread at the pocket. A man raised his hand and asked if she started her own clothing line. (She hasn’t). Moshfegh took another question about inventing characters. She described how, while writing McGlue, she kept a mirror behind her computer screen. “If I needed to test out what a line would feel like when McGlue delivered it, I could try it in different ways,” she said. How does he walk? How does he squint? Spit? Moshfegh invents people by studying herself. This may explain how she manages to write characters that move as if no one is watching them. Because of the third person, Moshfegh lets us stare from every angle: Marek’s shoulder blades protruding like “sharp wings.” Jude’s muscles, covered in lamb shit but shining “like polished bluffs beaten by an ocean.” Ina’s breasts — though those are “more like flaps than breasts.”
We know drama is coming for these characters as soon as the climate changes again. “The rain fell for too long,” begins part three, “Fall.” The drought ends, potatoes grow. The villagers thank God. And then Lapvona’s social code unravels. The line between Lapvona-the-village and the Lapvona-the-manor continues to dissolve — slowly, then all at once. Marek amasses more power, his father starts working on the hill. A string of casualties inside the stone house devastates the royal family. Down below, villagers ditch religion and start sleeping in. Their days carry a “wistful magic” without the constant chiming of church bells. It should be a satisfying flip, this triumph of good over evil, but unsurprisingly, Moshfegh doesn’t let us off that easy. She turns back to Marek (this book, unlike her others, really considers the men), who remains an outcast. He moves houses, but never feels at home. Loneliness settles back in like a thin layer of dust.
Houses and bedrooms and bathrooms are important places in Moshfegh’s novels. “Once I started sleeping full time, I didn’t look out my windows very often,” says the protagonist in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, who locks herself in her apartment, a quasi-pharmacy for sleeping pills. In Lapvona, Moshfegh is modifying her standard. This might be her “pandemic novel,” but she is uninterested in characters who are stuck inside. She has already done that. She has been at home long enough. Instead, she writes a long cast list. She builds houses and cottages and caves, fills them with people and moves them around, configuring and reconfiguring them until the town is unrecognizable. By the end, Lapvona’s philosophical blueprint is destroyed. What remains, though, is maybe Moshfegh’s most essential structure: the unit of one. Solitude. The house, too, remains standing. Those reclaimed bricks don’t fall.
Francesca Billington is an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing at NYU. She is currently working on a podcast about the history of an uninhabited island called Navassa.
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