Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel, Lapvona, is one I’ve been putting off writing about because it’s undoubtedly her weirdest. The setting itself introduces the small manor of Lapvona’s strangeness by it’s similarity but slight difference to our own world. Medieval society where Andean-staple potatoes are eaten? Doused in chaotic magic? It’s fantasy! Sort of. If 2019’s Death in Her Hands can be regarded as Moshfegh on the mystery novel (and you know I hold that position), then Lapvona could similarly be viewed as her entry into the realm of high fantasy.
As with Death in Her Hands, this is no satire, so Terry Pratchett fans can all just settle down. No, it’s much more of her own dark, hyper-realistic world, a la Orsinia, with the seasons of the year framing it’s deliberately simple plot. It’s the life of Marek, a teenage shepherd on the autism spectrum, who rises from the town pariah to the lord of the manor in one year approximately. That year sees the death of the local aristocracy, a severe drought that ruins the local economy, and the reentry of Marek’s estranged mother, a nun, back into his life.
However, despite being a literal rags-to-riches tale, there’s overly complicated entanglements behind each component of the plot, that often involve heavy situational irony. Marek begins his entry into the landed nobility by impulsively killing his only (and a pretty lousy) friend, Jacob, son of the lord, Villiam. However, Marek’s shepherd father, Jude, claims to be Villiam’s cousin, so he makes his son admit the crime to Villiam, but, twist, Jacob and Marek are both something like bastards anyway, so Marek didn’t actually kill a relative. I say “something like” because Marek’s mother, Agata, and Jude weren’t formally married so much as Jude had imprisoned her and raped her when she was already pregnant. I could go on, but then I would just be writing the novel. No character fits solidly in a niche, besides perhaps Villiam as a corrupt lord, but a flood of ironic situations understates all of it. Blink, and you’ll miss the fact that the tortured bandit whom Marek kisses in the stocks is his biological father. Or, the linguistic oddity in the phrase “lamb’s milk.”
These overwrought complications often result from magical chaos, to which they then add further. Only Ina the witch knows how to harness magic, but her grasp on iy is pretty loose. Ina is ageless, but magically breastfeeds nearly everyone in the village. Her sight comes and goes until she steals a horse’s eyes which fixes her eyesight for good. Yes, steals a horse’s eyes. While bizarre imagery such as this adds a poetic element and makes the story more vivid, it’s also more chaotic. It’s a depiction of the often senseless nature of fate, especially when fate is cruel as most characters default to in this book. Villiam treats people as objects and even his servants consider themselves too good for the likes of Marek. Few characters think about characters other than themselves very often, usually out of a hyperfocus on survival. Marek himself doesn’t care or love anyone else, really. He tries not to be a victim or to go hungry.
The cycle of short-term thinking doesn’t bode well for those who live on the manor with Villiam and Marek. However, there is an argument for valuing human life no matter what because the superficial idiots who tend to dominate Lapvona and lead it forever into a fugue of pointless death think themselves above everyday life. There must always be the sense that life could be better if only someone would have a long-term vision because otherwise, it’s too simplistic to chronicle the woes of the world. Unfortunately, sometimes it can be hard to find any optimism in Lapvona.
In conclusion, Moshfegh’s foray into the world of fantasy appears muddled and hard to grasp at first. There’s some unforgettable prose here – the only point of reference I have for the horse-eye thing would be the Grimms’ tale of Clever Hans, look it up if you dare – which will reward readers dedicated enough to pour over it. But the chaotic, violent world that appears on the surface must be more than Hobbes’s “nasty, brutish, and short” life, otherwise, there would be no generating it.
Three out of five stars.
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