Heinous, Horrible, Hellish and Hopeful?

Words by: Caitlin Cefai

A review of Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

Trigger warning: violent and graphic imagery. 

It’s icky, unkind and downright disturbing, but as Moshfegh herself describes, it’s a tale of hope, and a brilliant one at that.

The story of Lapvona 

The novel follows a young shepherd’s son, Marek. Disfigured from birth, he is ignored by the medieval town of Lapvona and abused by his father, but Marek sees his pain as the pathway to salvation; nobody who experiences this much abuse in their life cannot be close to God after death.

But Marek has an evil streak, something in him that compels him to throw a stone at his friend Jacob, the Lord’s son, causing Jacob to lose his footing on a cliff’s edge and fall to his death. Marek’s father Jude carries Jacob’s body to the Lord’s manor, and forces Marek to admit to his crime. In a satirical twist of fate, the Lord Villiam agrees to forgive the murder, so long as he can take Marek in as his son, to replace Jacob. 

The tale that follows is full of gruesome plot twists, mind-bending deception, and death so constant, cold, and lonely, that it’s hard not to mourn the characters you become attached to. But one consistent theme across the entire text is hope, because every evil action that occurs in the novel is intrinsically human. We as a race have overcome them before, so why not again?

I attended the Melbourne Writers Festival this spring and had the pleasure of seeing the interview between the editor of The Monthly, Michael Williams, and Lapvona author, Ottessa Moshfegh. 

Moshfegh is famous for her novels My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Death in Her Hands, and Eileen. Unlike these first-person narratives with female protagonists, Lapvona is a shift for Moshfegh; it’s written from an omnipresent point of view with the perspectives of a range of characters — men and women, young and old, good and evil.

“Being the first book I wrote in an omniscient third person perspective… it was liberating, that was the fun part,” Moshfegh explained.

“To hear [each character] speak, hear their thoughts, hear the ways they deceive others, hear them in their relationships was so different for me”. 

Where previously she was always “trying with such earnestness to describe things” now Moshfegh writes to share the “experience of being a human being”, and with Lapvona, she wanted to — ironically — write a humanised form of a fairytale. 

“The [medieval] time and place for Lapvona really came out of sitting with the story that I wanted to tell, and needing a place to go to,” Moshfegh said. “I think there’s some value in looking at Lapvona historically, in the same way that we look at fairytales historically.

“We probably have no idea what the real intent of those fairytales were, at this point, but when we read them we imagine another world, a medieval world.

“The historicism of Lapvona is very much tied to its functionality,” Moshfegh explained.

Moshfegh found her inspiration for the novel during the pandemic lockdowns, citing the “almost apocalyptic times we were all living in, [causing] a drastic shift in the way that [she] thought about what the world was”. 

Lapvona is an extreme interpretation of the pandemic-stricken world, where the people of Lapvona suffer through a drought that causes famine so bad they resort to cannibalism, while Villiam and his traded-for son Marek live with fresh water supply from the mountains in their secluded manor. In many ways, Villiam hiding an abundance of freshwater is like those in power who were stingy with important medical supplies, like masks, for hospitals. Parallels like these can be drawn throughout the book, and as Moshfegh explained to Williams, it was all about the power balance.

“The question of how people use power was so ubiquitous throughout the whole book,” she explained, “especially in the relationships between people”.

However, Moshfegh wants everyone to recognise the importance of hope in her story.

“For me, Lapvona is ‘in defence of faith’, that’s the way I see its hopefulness,” she explained.

“Faith is what drives us, what pins reality in place and it can be a very beautiful thing. I discovered faith through the creative process, and so I have faith that is really just faith in my own writing. 

“So much of what I consider to be faith and hope is really just me asking for guidance from something beyond me, listening and being dutiful and being true to myself as a writer.”

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