Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona review – a carnival of the grotesque | Ottessa Moshfegh

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Jhere’s something encouraging, and perhaps revealing, about the success of Ottessa Moshfegh. His abject, perverse, and excremental fictions carry a whiff of deviance and nihilism in a clean, squeaky mainstream that comforts some while alienating others. Although it takes place before the horrors of web 2.0, his hugely popular novel My year of rest and relaxation seemed to reflect something of the medicated, sorry, anesthetized now. While the dominant cultural and literary tone of our time decrees “It’s the end of the world – no laughing”, Moshfegh’s stuff is comically bizarre, amoral and antisocial.

Lapvone is not his first novel to flee the contemporary world – his beginnings, Mcglue, was set aboard a 19th-century pirate ship – but its hazy medieval setting, like a retold dream of a half-forgotten past, feels like a bold diversion. At the beginning of my reading, I wondered: “What is she doing? What skin does she have in this game? Three hundred pages later, I still didn’t have all my answers, even though I realized then that the (pseudo)historical framework was tearing us apart. out of history and in a timeless inner landscape of urges, impulses and desires. A host of characters bearing only first names trace the play of instinct and appetite amidst an infantile, joyfully unworthy realm where morality operates in an alien way or is not there at all. LapvoneThe grotesque and cheeky world of shows us not what it was before, but what it has always been.

In the Eastern European-like stronghold of Lapvona, Marek is a masochistic and pious 13-year-old who remains in a stable distaste for his father, Jude, despising his masturbation and excessive pleasure in rituals of marriage. self-mortification. The lord and governor of Lapvona is the baby-man Villiam, whose priority in life is to be entertained at all times. Dibra is Villiam’s wife, “a bore and a nuisance”, while Ina is a withered old woman with magically generous breasts whom Marek and others come to suck in her shack on the outskirts of town. Marek’s mother, Agata, is believed to be dead but may be on the verge of returning.

These peripheral and diverse characters collide in such a way as to weave together the plot, though it soon becomes clear that this plot, like the medieval setting, is secondary to the throbbing and quivering web of incident and carnality it facilitates. . In addition to adult men nursing old eldritch women, we are shown ejaculations, incest, failed abortions, ass sniffing, rape, women with no tongues or no eyes, and a scene involving a servant girl and a grape that could have come out of a damp 4chan cellar. Particularly in his morally neutral scenes of physical and sexual humiliation, Moshfegh seems to write from a sleazy brotherhood that includes the Marquis de Sade, Georges Bataille and Angela Carter.

Among the novel’s few real-world signifiers is the Christian religion, though here faith is a codification of perversities, violence, and morbid carnal fascinations. Its morality is invoked only in reference to its punitive delights (“Chastise a wrongdoer and God will know you are good”) or its bizarre sex appeal (“Jesus, bloodied and dead, falls into the arms of Mary. His nipples hardened from the thought of that hug, and her breasts hurt”). The most basic, charged and dreamlike passages read like scenes from an art-porn movie so avant-garde that it no longer aspires to arouse, but rather sets out to unveil a reality transcendent of sex and psyche. A description of Villiam’s bed doubles as a gloss on the novel’s multicolored, crusty texture: “smeared blood, smeared shit, shot cum on the canopy.”

Aside from Marek, Villiam, Ina and one or two others, the characters hardly stand out except as embodiments of the drive or attribute. There are too many names. We meet Jenevere, Clod, Petra, Ivan, Jon, Lisbeth, Grigor, Vuna, Luka, Emil and more, but it’s hard to keep track of their incest family ties or the dramatic role they are everyone supposed to play. Father Barnabas stands out as an amusing and complacent priest, vaguely aware that he must do the absolute minimum to avoid letting the villagers realize that he is corrupt to the core. Jacob, a handsome rival of Marek, meets a bloody end early on. In its final act, the novel – which is divided into seasons of the year – gives way to a dubious second coming, as eerie images spring from an underground wellspring of unconsciousness and myth: a woman with horse eyes ; divine ejaculations; shit like satanic sacrament.

In the past, Moshfegh has floated the idea that she might be a bit of a hack (she revealed that her acclaimed novel Eileen from an awful “Write a Novel in 90 Days” show), but Lapvone confirms that such ploys served the author’s deeper agenda of getting the weird shit in front of a mass audience. What impresses here is not so much Moshfegh’s character or storytelling abilities, or even his language (which excels more in his short stories), but the qualities Lapvone shared with a painting by Francis Bacon: depicting in blood-red vitality, without morals or judgment, the human animal in its native chaos. “When God gives you more than you can tolerate, you turn to instinct. And instinct is a force beyond anyone’s control.

Rob Doyle’s most recent books are Autobibliography and Threshold

Lapvone by Ottessa Moshfegh is published by Jonathan Cape (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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