Since the explosion of TikTok and the mass commodification of media, two authors have had their literary style bastardized more frequently and insidiously than nearly all others. One of these writers is Sally Rooney, for whom commodification is a natural progression of narrative, in light of her characters’ vacant intellectual and political posturing — and, of course, successful TV adaptations fronted by mousey brunettes and their hunky yet sensitive love interests. The other is Ottessa Moshfegh.
Counter to Rooney, Moshfegh’s commodification is somewhat out of left field. Her writing is not glamorous or aspirational. Often, her stories take place in literal and metaphorical squalor, rendered in Moshfegh’s signature gut-churning prose. This approach proved organically compelling in her novels written prior to her explosive commercial success, which is to say, prior to “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” becoming the centerpiece of Barnes & Noble “BookTok” displays.
With her latest endeavor “Lapvona,” it’s evident that Moshfegh is not impervious to her newfound widespread name recognition or status as the definitive writer of “unlikable female protagonists.” The well-worn maxim “write what you know” feels especially applicable to Lapvona, a locale so far removed from Moshfegh’s preferred New England settings, yet molded with an artificial precision her same grotesque sensibilities.
Lapvona, as a setting, is enigmatic, but on the most banal of scales. In Moshfegh’s words, it’s “quasi-historical” — the particulars of time and place are fuzzy, with a town mired in patriarchal despotism and a slippery interpretation of religious doctrine. As such, it’s a setting ripe for a cheapened brand of literary exploitation more concerned with directionless irony and superficial moralism masquerading as depth, by virtue of the legitimacy an archaic setting affords her.
This is all to say that “Lapvona” is a little thin, the famine that plagues the village seemingly extending beyond the confines of the page. Even her familiar grossness feels stilted and gratuitous: One brief passage details the blind wet nurse, Ina, making and applying an aphrodisiac tincture out of urine, then popping partially decomposed horse eyes into her empty sockets — all in a day’s work.
In her previous novels, the singular voice that Moshfegh inhabits allows for an intrigue that cuts through the sterility of setting or plot. “Lapvona,” by contrast, is told via a fableistic, omniscient voice that ultimately does Moshfegh a disservice in its unspecificity. Lacking this crucial fiber to bind narrative to something tangible, Moshfegh’s focus haphazardly flits between a cast of Lapvonian degenerates, giving little indication of when or why a perspectival shift occurs.
Despite its meandering, the novel most certainly has a central figure. Marek is a young boy disfigured by incest and prone to self-flagellation, a practice bestowed upon him by his father, Jude. Much like Moshfegh herself, Marek is consumed by thoughts of death, his own (which he, justifiably, views as precariously near at all times), and his mother’s, which he has been led to believe he is responsible for. Death looms large in the peripheral vision of every Lapvonian — one of two great equalizers Moshfegh is preoccupied with.
Death and s— are both bleak, and they both hold Lapvona by the strings. Yet, perhaps the most chilling thing about the book is its faux resolution, one of its few salient critiques of the present. The corrupt feudal lord Villiam is ousted not by a determined and organized populace, but removed by sheer accident — and a top-down regime of religious control is supplanted by a spiritual “emptiness left by what was now gone.”
Most of the time, “Lapvona” is more concerned with shock and dialing up the Moshfegian ick factor than it is with illuminating harrowing truths about the human experience. Perhaps this is because she felt the need to top herself, or maybe it’s her idea of a cheeky bit of (bold, underlined, all caps) “self aware” fun.
In practice, it’s almost certainly both. But that’s precisely the problem with “Lapvona.” Self aware as it may be, novels are just simply better than fables, no matter how you might try and zhuzh them up with irony, excrement humor or Demi Lovato lyric epigraphs.