Medieval literature often speaks of the goddess Fortuna, a personification of the belief that the fate of men and women was beyond their control, completely random and separated from meaning or justice. She spun her famous wheel and sometimes you came out on top, other times you tragically fell to the bottom. Bad things happened to good people, and vice versa. No matter how lucky she gave you, you will eventually find yourself out of her good graces and suffer one indignity or another. “She disregards the groans of unhappy misfortune”, wrote Boethius, “but laughs at the sorrows which arise from her misdeeds”.
Which brings me to Ottessa Moshfegh. In her latest book, “Lapvona” (forthcoming June 21), she brings her cynical eye and unapologetic style to a small medieval village, creating a gripping allegory about capitalism, community and corruption that suggests our fates may not be as random or immutable as they seem.
Lapvona exists somewhere in medieval Christendom, but for all its inhabitants, it might as well be on Mars. The world beyond the horizon has meaning for them only as the place from which the bandits come who plunder and plunder their lands, and where the fruits of their labor are sent into trade to enrich their lord, William. The city is a grim place; the lord is a waster; the priest is an impostor. Nominally Christian, the citizens respect the more bare trappings of the ceremony while continuing to trust folk remedies and superstitious rituals. They are more likely to seek advice from old Ina, a blind witch who lives on the outskirts of town, than from Barnabas, the false cleric. Plagued by all sorts of misfortunes – plagues, drought, famine, endemic violence, child abuse, pedophilia, rape, cannibalism and exploitation of all kinds – the people of Lapvona continually struggle for survival, even though it seems they have very little to do. live for.
“Lapvona” is extremely graphic at times and puts its characters — especially its women — through a gauntlet of ugly violations that can be difficult to read.
Moshfegh — who, through her books “Eileen,” “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” and “Death in Her Hands,” became famous for her complex, often brazenly off-putting female protagonists — took a different approach this time around. “Lapvona” is an ensemble piece, with a shifting third-person perspective that allows the author to provide a broader view of the village and its culture. But while his narrative style has changed, Moshfegh’s claustrophobic prose and predilection for all things grotesque have not. “Lapvona” is extremely graphic at times and puts its characters – especially its women – through a gauntlet of ugly violations that can be difficult to read. This is not a book for the faint of heart.
If there is a singular thread in the tale, it is that of Marek, a disabled young boy who begins the story as a pathologically pious punching bag for his father, a shepherd named Jude. At first, Marek’s uncomplaining acceptance of his pitiful lot in life seems to characterize him as a gentle soul in a harsh world. However, it quickly becomes clear that he is actually driven by malignant, masochistic narcissism. When he falls while fetching water, he is “secretly happy” and uses a sharp stone to deepen his wounds. Good, thought Marek. I deserve this ordeal. He lived for the difficulties. It gave him a reason to prove he was superior to his mortal suffering.
There is more than a little Steerpike from Mervyn Peake to Marek. While playing with the lord’s son, Jacob, Marek causes an accident – possibly intentionally – which leads to the gruesome death of the other boy and, through a combination of luck and Villiam’s ruthless whim, ends up being adopted. replacing Jacob. Ensconced in the mansion, Marek is safe from bandits, spends starvation gorging on sausages to the point of vomiting, and is generally oblivious to the misery beyond its walls as he jockeys for the favor of the lord. Slowly, Moshfegh reveals that many of Lapvona’s misfortunes, thought to be random events or unalterable vagaries of life, are in fact the result of Villiam’s malevolence. He arranges for bandits to periodically attack the village, to keep people in line. He caused the drought and subsequent famine by diverting the river for his own purposes. It’s not Fortuna’s hand on the wheel, it’s Villiam’s.
If there’s a moral to “Lapvona,” it’s that while our destinies are in fact often beyond our control, they aren’t necessarily determined by chance or divine will…
Lapvona’s women are treated like property, largely obedient and quiet as custom dictates, but Moshfegh offers readers a window into their tortured inner lives. When Villiam’s wife, Dibra, mourns her dead son, she recalls that he “never spoke to her as if she had a spirit, but as something to operate, like a clock or a compass”. Marek’s mother, Agata, who was thought to be dead but had instead hidden in a convent to escape Jude, survives through dissociation. ” ‘I am an object in the room,’ she thought to herself. “That’s all I am.” This belief spared her the agony of her own intelligence while a slave to the nuns. When Marek finds her, he is stunned and asks her if she is really alive. She can only shrug her shoulders. “Who could answer such a question? She wonders. Can what she has be called a life?
“Lapvona” was written during the pandemic and features a flashback in which a young Ina survives a plague, much to the dismay of her fellow villagers, who are more concerned with the economic opportunities presented by the mass death than her well-being. be. “She had seen death clearly and she was not afraid of it. What frightened him were other people and their unwavering selfishness. If there is a moral to “Lapvona”, it is that while our destinies are in fact often beyond our control, they are not necessarily determined by chance or divine will, but rather by the choices of those who have acquired enough power and privilege to indulge their selfishness.
Hosted by Harvard Book Store, Ottessa Moshfegh will discuss her new book “Lapvona” at the Brattle Theater on June 24.