“Lapvona,” by Ottessa Moshfegh, Is a Dark Folk Horror Film Set a Long Time Ago

The girls and I vacillate in the voice recordings of the group chat between talking about Corey Stoll’s undeniable sex appeal and our nagging suspicion that we are not just approaching system collapse but living inside of it.

With the social media era’s hyper-rapid information distribution, the state of our present feels increasingly untenable by the day, hour, minute, and even by the very second. It’s a hellscape on Twitter. America is a nation of death. Our world is horrible. or will in due time.  I’ve always been the type of person to turn to fiction when things are chaotic, difficult, or hopeless. I think fiction is an expansive form, and I also tend to think that storytelling relies heavily on the promise of hope—perhaps for the potential generation of better knowledge.  Not because I want to foolishly insist that books will heal the world, but because I think fiction has a peculiar ability to give experiences a clear structure, even or especially when those experiences involve misery or terror. 

Recently, I’ve been readjusting this sensibility because it seems like the Literary Hot Girls are losing heart. Jenny Offill focused on the imminent end of society in 2020’s Weather, where she discovered a bleak solution: a circle of the wagons, the development of joy and care in the small, the ordinary, and the close-by.  Since our universe has just been the first draught, Sheila Heti’s Pure Color earlier this year raised the possibility that God made a mistake while designing humanity; that plants would be a better choice to take over following its revisionary obliteration. Gayl Jones and Rivka Galchen chose to focus on the past while Yoko Towada and Joy Williams moved to the speculative genre of the near future in their most recent books. Then Ottessa Moshfegh steps into the ring with Lapvona, a “historical” fairy tale about the injustices and brutality that an impoverished village community endures over a year.  

Life is truly ugly, brutish, and brief for the peasants of Lapvona, the imaginary medieval lordship that bears Moshfegh’s book’s title. The narrative begins with a raid on Easter, when robbers invade the community and steal livestock, cheese, and equipment, killing men, women, and two little children in the process.  No gold or silver was seized since “none was available. In actuality, there isn’t much of anything to be had, however, the villagers would desperately barter among themselves during times of dire necessity. One of the bandits is wounded by the mother of the slain children, who then captures him and has his ear cut off before hanging him after being gutted. The son of a shepherd asks God to pardon the bandit and muses that sorrow is experienced during life, not when it ends, because the deceased “was, unlike the rest of them, at peace. 

 For those who are familiar with Moshfegh’s writing, it should come as no surprise that the raid is merely the canary’s song echoing in the mines: from this point on, the novel inevitably goes from bad to worse.  In the summer, there is a terrible drought that kills all the livestock and crops. The Lapvonians, who are vegetarians by tradition, first eat flesh before devouring one another. In the camps built around the lake, where the water levels are also dropping, the majority perish from starvation. The lord of Lapvona doesn’t care about the loss of these oppressed people; he will merely wait it out and replace them the following year with blondes brought in from the North.  Nearly all of the original villagers will be insane or dead themselves by the conclusion of the following four seasons.

 Moshfegh has never been the kind of writer who is subject to charges of sentimentality. She has developed very odd popularity over the past ten years—literary celebrity, in and of itself, being a bizarre cultural phenomenon that only gets stranger with each new generation of writers.  Her debut book, Eileen, immediately established her as a favorite among critics after being named to the Man

Booker Prize shortlist and winning the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award.  Her subsequent book, My Year of Rest, published in 2018, helped her transition from her already wide-ranging success into the cultural mainstream.

The book, which featured the instantly recognizable Jacques-Louis David painting on the cover, seemed to be everywhere in New York City that year and is still a potent indicator for a particular demographic of millennial readers today. The hilarious plunge into the existential crisis of a horrible and attractive gallerina-adjacent pillhead in the novel My Year made reading an actual book on the subway, analog style, desirable once more.  It turned Moshfegh into a Meme Queen.

In just eight years, Moshfegh has released a novella, a collection of short stories, and four novels, unquestionably solidifying her reputation as a supremely disciplined and prolific writer.  (On the other hand, being prolific rarely generates sympathy in one’s rival reviewers and writers—just take a look at Joyce Carol Oates!) (On the other side, avoid looking up JCO’s foot photo on Twitter because it seems like it could have been taken straight from a Moshfegh novel.) For 2020’s Death in Her Hands, she followed Alan Watt’s The 90-Day Novel, writing 1000 words every day until she felt she had used up the elderly protagonist Vesta Gul’s voice.  Eileen was written using this method. She made the contentious claim in an interview with The Guardian that writing was similar to a game she had joined to get fame, financial stability, and the freedom to declare, ” I’ll show you how easy this is.

The critics have labeled Moshfegh’s confidence in her profession as arrogance. She got special criticism for saying in the same interview, “I’m clever and talented and ambitious and disciplined…talented, did I mention that already? (The inherent misogyny in many of these criticisms feels so commonplace that it is almost unremarkable—but only almost.) However, Moshfegh’s belief that anyone with enough willpower can write a successful novel is a philosophy that feels perfectly in line with our time’s democratization of literary production.  Moshfegh’s heresies have generally been against the sanctity and mystifications of the writerly life. Moshfegh is praised for her brutality by some critics, but others claim she is best known for her character studies (while faltering in the plot)Others contend that her works’ trademark scatologies and titillations are the products of a narrative shock jock.  (My Year controversially ends with the Twin Towers’ collapse, with the narrator’s pitiful foe purportedly dying inside.) J. Robert Lennon characterized her technique as “reader-hostile” in what turned out to be a mainly favorable review of Death in Her Hands for the London Review of Books and claimed that her earlier work was an example of the disorderly hostility of a “high-functioning literary troll. 

Those traveling to Lapvona in search of a sea change might be better off turning around at the shore. The protagonist of the book is as physically repulsive and misanthropic as she has ever been. One of our most exciting chroniclers of the abominable, Moshfegh is a joyous documentarian of all the bodily excrescences and defilements that make us face our inevitable decay—or, as the French philosopher Julia Kristeva could put it, our future deaths  Lapvona’s fairly overt politicism may be the key to the current enormous evolution in Moshfegh’s continuous corpus. This story is fundamentally about the disparity between the rich and the poor and how violent psychologies and exploitation systems—of the underprivileged, of resources, of women’s bodies, of the land and earth itself—make up a substantial portion, if not the very foundation, of the human condition. 

We learn about the Trumpian lord of Lapvona, Villiam, as well as his miserable and unfaithful wife, Dibra, and As the story swings from the struggling town to the wasteful and perverted opulence of the estate, we meet his bastard son Jacob, a strong and gorgeous

us teenager fascinated with playing God as taxidermy We learn that the villagers were mistaken in thinking that the bandits that assaulted the town were unpredictable anarchic interceders; instead, Villiam occasionally and covertly employs them “anytime there was a whisper of disagreement among the farmers.  The drought is also a result of human activity, as Villiam directed the melting snow into a reservoir for the manor that he then splashed around in while nude, impervious to the misery below from his perch atop the hill.  In any case, “Villiam believed that terror and grief were beneficial for morale.

Not that Villiam’s relatives could comment on the reality of such a notion in daily life. Almost none of Lapvona’s well-guarded manor’s residents wander around the village. Father Barnabas, the town priest—a man of shaky faith and profound idiocy, whose fundamental duties are to soothe the working class with the poison of religion and, almost as crucially, to ferret out intelligence as Villiam’s spy—transmits rumors between the two realms.  The peasants and servants, who are not seen by Villiam, Barnabas, or Villiam’s family as human beings at all, are thus exploited for every last bit of profit by the ruling class and the institution of the church. but only tools for several wealth-accumulating purposes.

The plot of Lapvona centers on the tale of Marek, the shepherd’s adoptive kid who is motherless and, in the novel’s terms, physically disfigured due to his mother’s haphazard but relentless attempts to induce abortion while she was pregnant, at least in the opinion of the village midwife.  Marek has always been taught that his mother is dead, but like with many of the apparent realities presented at the beginning of the book, it turns out that her passing was a clever ruse.  Agata has only been hiding out in a nunnery, which is the only place in Lapvona where a woman can flee her background or the abuse of men. Women are exclusively “enslaved” to one another in the nunnery. Marek is the result of Agata being raped by her brother; in her words, he is “a bastard, a scar. A victim of rape was indeed evidence in this case.

 Marek is a typical Moshfeghian grotesque: his physical peculiarity directs his life toward social, emotional, and spiritual solitude, carrying on the lineage of the loners in Eileen, My Year of rest, and Death in Her Hands.  Even the newborn lambs hate Marek, according to his father Jude, because they recognize that he is “a baby in his way, that he would steal their milk for himself if he could.  Marek, who has been mistreated by Jude and is a living reminder of his mother’s trauma, is despised or shunned by everyone around him. Ina, a blind midwife, however, leads a hermetic existence apart from the villagers and navigates her constrained world through communion with the birds. Older than anyone can remember, Ina is the witch from Moshfegh’s fairy tale and acts as a type of historian for the community. Despite never having children of her own, she had provided wet nursing to several generations of Lapvonians, and she envisioned that the children of Lapvona “would all be mine. 

In Ina, Lapvona suggests a potential woman-centered intervention in the structural subjections of the patriarchal order, but Ina’s self-imposed isolationism and profound moral ambiguity do not, in the end, frame a homegrown, DIY matriarchy as capable of (re)inventing paradise.  (In fact, later in the book, Ina willingly incorporates cannibalism into the present narrative when she takes a horse’s eyes to replace her own.) Ina is basically self-interested and primarily amoral in her worldview, much like practically every other character created by Moshfegh. She uses her previous work as a midwife to land a job at the manor as Agata’s handmaiden, who has come there in her habit, tongueless, mute, and carrying what Lord Villiam believes to be the second Christ-baby—before permitting Agata to pass away giving birth to it.  Girlbosses continue to prevail.

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