When Ottessa Moshfegh was writing her first book, McGlue, she placed her computer in front of a large mirror so she could observe herself becoming her narrator: a drunken 19th-century deckhand who is chained to a cot in a ship’s hold, having been accused of knifing his gay lover to death. Carefully monitoring her posture and the look in her eye was, Moshfegh says, the writer’s equivalent of method acting.
Since then, the 41-year-old American author has built a cult readership for her unsettling stories narrated by distinctive and dislikeable characters – mostly women. Moshfegh’s narrators are amoral; they have grotesque and violent thoughts; they seek oblivion. There is the young narrator of Booker-nominated Eileen (2015) who likes to stare into a mirror, examining her “soft, rumbling acne scars” and scratch her vagina at work. There is the depressed narcissist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), who resigns from her job at an art gallery by defecating on the floor. And, as if to show that old women are just as damaged and disturbed, Death in Her Hands (2020) entered the mind of an isolated septuagenarian held hostage by violent and erotic fantasies.
Lapvona, Moshfegh’s sixth book, marks a departure in that it’s written in the third-person and roams around the minds of an ample cast – at last, we are out of the bedroom and into the world. Lapvona is the name of a dirty, corrupted, plague-infested village in late medieval Europe where a cruel, capricious lord exploits the inhabitants’ religious superstitions. The setting feels like a way for Moshfegh to widen her exploration of human depravity: cannibalism, torture, rape, faeces, unappetising meals. If she went method for this story, I’m not sure I want the details.
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In the opening pages, Marek, a 13-year-old disabled boy, seeks out a bandit who has been placed in the stocks for the slaughter of innocent villagers. When Marek finds the bandit – covered in excrement, limbs hanging from their sockets, his ear hacked off – the man spits in his face. Determined not to show his disgust lest God judge him, Marek kisses his lips, which taste of “sweat and the rancid oils caked into his reddish hair”. As he leaves, he feels that he has “earned a bit of grace while the rest of the village had reviled the bandit and suffered now in darkness”.
Over the course of a year, plague spreads among the Lapvonians and a drought forces them to eat their neighbours. Exploiting the unrest are violent outlaws, employed by the debauched Lord Villiam, who lives high up on the hill above, extorting villagers’ money, food and, eventually, diverting their water supply.
Villiam thrives on “the humiliation of others”. His right-hand man, Father Barnabas, listens out for rumours of dissent and tends to Villiam’s every whim. (At one point, he requires a servant to insert a grape into her anus.) Meanwhile, the pious Lapvonians believe their sacrifices will be rewarded in the afterlife. Among the villagers is Marek, who is constantly beaten by his father, Jude, a self-flagellating lamb herder.
Marek’s only comforts are his faith in God and his regular visits to the village wet nurse, Ina, who suckles various Lapvonian youths long into manhood. A blind, witchy figure, Ina trades psychedelic mushrooms for her neighbours’ bread and eggs and asks the birds about the nature of existence: “they answered that… love was a distinctly human defect which God had created to counterbalance the power of human greed.”
The book intersperses lyrical contemplations of nature with acts of depravity – including the moment Marek accidentally kills Villiam’s heir, Jacob. At this point, a fairy-tale storyline kicks in. Villiam whimsically orders a swap: Marek, whose hair is “a joke colour” and whose “lips moved like a fish when he spoke”, will become the lord’s son, dedicated to his amusement.
Summer arrives and things deteriorate further. Famine hits the local nunnery, where Marek’s supposedly dead and tongueless mother, Agata, has been in hiding for 13 years. Forced to flee, she ends up at the manor, concealing a swollen belly under her habit. Quite how she came to be pregnant is never explained but Villiam believes the child to be the new Christ and decides to marry Agata, having just had his own wife killed. None of this makes much sense but then neither does the scene in which Ina swaps her defective eyeballs with those of a horse.
Moshfegh, not usually one for plot, manages to cram in more action than all her other books put together – only the story reads as if she’s making it up as she goes along. There are a few delicious moments of black comedy (Jude: “What about heaven, Ina? Don’t you want to go?” Ina: “It doesn’t matter… I won’t know anyone.”). But it adds up to little more than a sequence of stomach-churning provocations which – as with the Marquis de Sade – soon becomes dull and repetitive.
Perhaps more damaging for Moshfegh’s intent, I found the setting and characters alternately reminiscent of the animated movie Shrek and JK Rowling’s kingly romp, The Ickabog. Such are the perils of a thinly-realised medieval setting peopled with archetypes. You set out for a realm of transcendent horror à la Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. You end up in Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom.
Then there are the moments that feel more millennial than medieval. In one passage, Villiam reflects on his own ageing, which puts “a great strain on [his] sense of self. He became more self-conscious. His self-confidence waned. He knew he ought to be more self-reliant.” Moshfegh goes on, referencing “self-intimacy”, “self-awareness”, “self-doubt” “self-loathing” and “self-seriousness” all within three pages. This pile-up of anachronistic prefixes must be deliberate. Does she want us to see ourselves within these medieval figures? Does she want us to realise how spiritual belief helps us escape from an obsession with the self? Moshfegh never deepens these questions, she merely restates that people and fate can be cruel in “this stupid life”.
Unlike many writers of her generation, Moshfegh has never shown much interest in pursuing social issues in her fiction, believing that social media places too much pressure on artists and writers to produce work that functions as political commentary. Instead, she is drawn to the elemental and the existential, exploring how her characters understand and navigate their reality. She is increasingly interested in belief, particularly in how godliness and the grotesque go hand in hand. Lapvona could also be read as a Covid allegory – it features plague, exploitation, a corrupt elite – or equally, as a meditation on the human condition: “Life was chaos. There were no rewards.”
But it fails to rise above the platitudes to become a work of moral seriousness. It’s neither an insightful depiction of the way power corrupts, nor a droll depiction of human behaviour at its most abject. As with Death in Her Hands, it’s hard to see what Moshfegh is trying to achieve other than notoriety. Even the torture, rape and murder feel inconsequential. There were times when I was so bored and disconnected, I felt like I was reading the novel through the narcotic-induced haze of one of Moshfegh’s numb, amoral protagonists. I couldn’t summon the will to care.
Jonathan Cape, 320pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working