If he played it well, he could become a saint, he thought. Like Joseph. He better act like one, he knew, but it was so boring. It was terribly depressing. The idiot feudal lord Villiam in the new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, Lapvone, summarizes the author’s work so far with these thoughts towards the end. All the protagonists of Moshfegh, from the titular Mcglue and Eileenat the unnamed mobile pharmacy My year of rest and relaxationto the merrily petty and bitter Vesta Ghul of Death in his hands, are bitter and cynical people. His collection of short stories, Homesickness for another worldremains his best book, and although Lapvone isn’t his masterpiece (nor is it a book that’s easily optional for movies and TV like My year of rest and relaxation and Eileen), this is Moshfegh’s biannual transmission. She is America’s top working novelist, and her steady output and confidence are encouraging. There aren’t many real authors left.
Lapvone is a tough sell for anyone who doesn’t like the Middle Ages or fantasy novels. The work of JRR Tolkien and George RR Martin is none of my business. But it’s a new book from Moshfegh, and once you get over the names and the miserable setting, his voice emerges. Many of his short stories are in third person, but this is his first novel without a first person narrator, and his prose suffers for it. Lapvone takes place in the titular fictional village, a place with a distinct medieval setting but historical figures – just the dressing. Characters from inbred and orphan Marek, to quack priest Father Barnabas, to 100-plus-year-old mystic and healer Ina speak in modern vernacular. Moshfegh conjured up Lapvona as a miniature hell on Earth, where everyone is illiterate, unhealthy, violent and “pious”: working for Villiam in his mansion above them, taking all their crops and water, and sending bandits whenever rumors start to spread. spread.
Moshfegh’s characters are compelling enough to forget that his line-by-line writing here isn’t as strong as any of his previous novels. At a time, Lapvone is a delirious book and so dark and exaggerated Wrong that everyone’s misery becomes hilarious. Everyone in this book is a treacherous idiot with no real regard for God or the people around them. More than anything else I remembered Salo– Pasolini’s film, not the writings of the Marquis de Sade, which Moshfegh has already quoted. There is no allegory or political context to the cruelty in Lapvone, so when Villiam makes his servant Lispeth swallow some grapes wiped with Marek’s filthy ass, it’s just an empty show of cruelty, albeit a lot of fun. Pasolini transposed de Sade’s book to Italy in 1944, and by collapsing time between 18elibertines of the last century, fascists of World War II, hippies and young people of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he produced a work that was much more powerful and resonant than its source material.
As vulgar and void of anything else as reveling in the potential of human cruelty, Lapvone never struck me as a cruel book written by a bitter, bigoted person; neither do any of Moshfegh’s other books. Nearly a decade into her career as a published author, Moshfegh is facing the backlash of jealous critics and people who want her career, her ambition, her ability and her talent. They will never have it. I can only take pure criticism so seriously – they are all failed artists, or people who have never understood what it is to be an artist and never will – and even if Moshfegh’s Recent “Withdrawal” by Andrea Long Chu in Vulture was well written, there was nothing in it.
What can Chu pin on Moshfegh? “The self-loathing narrator of Moshfegh’s experimental short story McGlue, set in 1851, makes lavish use of the word queer, despite the fact that its homophobic meaning is not attested until the 1910s. Moshfegh has a relationship equally joyous with physical deformity: Marek, a child of incest, has a twisted spine, a protruding rib cage and a deformed skull as well as what we moderns might call intellectual disability. Moshfegh herself might call him retarded, a word many of her characters wave like a little flag of rebellion. She begins the next paragraph by noting, “To be fair, Moshfegh never tried to defend his characters on moral grounds”, invalidating all of the above. Moshfegh’s writing is so electrifying because she writes about real people in the real world: cruel, cynical, indifferent to suffering. Chu’s article is filled with petty assumptions about Moshfegh, how she sees herself and how she sees others. His characters are mean people: the world is full of them. And these are not simple people.
Even pettier are the insults to Bret Easton Ellis and Moshfegh’s penchant for American psycho. Besides trying to make her guilty by association (she’s been a guest on her podcast), Chu calls Ellis a “twilight reactionary,” which is true, but “twilight”? Look to the White House for that. Ellis has a new novel coming out in January that remains widely read and influential in pop culture, which can’t be said for any other living writer besides JK Rowling. Moshfegh and contemporaries like Sally Rooney and Tao Lin remain big fish in a small pond, the modern edition. Did you know that Jonathan Franzen released a new book last year? I didn’t until I got it for Christmas.
So of course resentment had to flare up. Lapvone is not a fun novel to read if you don’t have the ability to laugh at man-made misery and our eternal stupidity and cruelty to one another. Moshfegh does not single out Marek or point out that he is a product of incest – which is revealed halfway through – on the contrary, she describes everyone in this book with equal contempt and disgust. It never becomes a note, but Chu’s right in that is something missing here that is found in all of his other novels. Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal slammed the book and asked, “When will this woman grow up? It’s a sexist comment that probably wouldn’t apply to someone like John Boyne, a decade older than Moshfegh and far more juvenile and vapid in his writing. I don’t think there is another American novelist who not only understands but willingly explores how mean and wicked people are in everyday life, in their thoughts, speeches and actions.
She just puts on a mirror, she doesn’t judge. Apparently that’s too much for some people. Or maybe they just want a book deal too.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith