Why has Ottessa Moshfegh written a bad medieval fantasy novel? Then again, this raises the question of whether it’s possible to write a good medieval fantasy novel. There is Tolkien, of course. But there is also everyone else. In the first chapter of George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones, the following lines appear. “‘Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,’ muttered Hullen, the master of horse. ‘I like it not’.” Portentous kitsch, this. But people love it. Martin’s books have sold in the millions. So have Robert Jordan’s, Tad Williams’s, Raymond E Feist’s, etc. But another chunk of cod-courtly flapdoodle loose in the realm? I like it not.
On the other hand, when a genre becomes this popular, it attracts the attention of ironists — that is, writers of a more reflective or parodic bent, who are interested in what a given genre might be made to say about less kitsch, more serious themes. This might be one reason why Lapvona, Ottessa Moshfegh’s fourth novel, takes place in a generic medieval fiefdom, and why it kicks around some of the tropes of medieval fantasy.
Seven years into a prolific career, Moshfegh appears to be shuffling restlessly through modes and genres, in pursuit of her themes: disgust, self-deception, greed, grief, self-love. Her first novel, Eileen (2015), was essentially a Patricia Highsmith thriller. Her second, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), riffed on the novels of Bret Easton Ellis. Her third, Death in Her Hands (2020), fused Vladimir Nabokov with Agatha Christie. And now Lapvona: a medieval fantasy novel.
Quite a bad one, as I say. Though not at all an uninteresting one. The setting is less medieval Europe than “medieval Europe”: placenames are makey-uppy (Iskria, Bordijn); character-names are shorn of specific national associations (Marek, Klarek, Clod, Agata). Lapvona, a miserable collection of hovels, is ruled by Villiam, a psychopathic feudal lord. Marek, a disabled young boy, semi-accidentally kills Villiam’s son Jacob. Villiam takes Marek into the manor as his replacement son. Meanwhile, Villiam has created an artificial drought; the Lapvonians turn to cannibalism to survive. The drought is followed by a surfeit of rains. Misery is universal. Highlights of this very violent book include: rape, incest, a blinded horse, a man vomiting up the pinkie finger of the neighbour whom he has just eaten, bloated corpses, and so on.
No specific historical moment seems to be intended and, indeed, anachronism proliferates. At one point, the villagers reflect that the birth of Christ was “hundreds of years ago,” but on the other hand, characters are aware of the germ theory of disease (19th century) and of psychoanalytic concepts like denial (20th century) and have thoughts like “Maybe this was his big romantic gesture” and say things like “Whatever”. The Lapvonians may live in hovels and put bandits in the stocks. But they all go on like 21st-century Americans.
This may be the point; Moshfegh may be having us on. She knows that it is preposterous, in 2022, to write a medieval fantasy novel. So she doesn’t really bother. Instead she writes a big, obvious, vicious allegory about contemporary America, dressed up in the medieval fantasy genre’s finest horse manure. Villiam (so-called because he’s a villain, get it?) lives in obscene luxury in the manor, distracting himself with idiotic games while below in Lapvona, the peasants eat each other.
Villiam reminds you of Donald Trump, though he may simply represent all elites. Moshfegh might be saying: our age is crudely neo-feudal, so let’s tell crudely neo-feudal stories about it. Lords, manors, peasants, a corrupt clerisy, apocalyptic inequality. That’s us! We’re Lapvona!
It’s also conceivable that Lapvona exists to appal and discourage some of those young readers who made My Year of Rest and Relaxation both a hit and a lifestyle accessory. It’s difficult to imagine Lapvona showing up in innumerable TikToks as a signifier of cool. The grimness, the sarcasm and the badness of the novel might, in other words, be a sort of scornful career-move, designed to return Moshfegh’s reputation to elitist obscurity.
Then again, we may be meeting her more than halfway, here. The badness may be the point, but badness is still badness, even if it’s deployed with a knowing wink. The basic problem being that Lapvona is not much fun to read. The prose is often ugly. “He had the gut of a sloth, which is what gave his lullaby voice its rotund softness.” Come again? In one two-page sequence we get “He had to torque his torso,” “the bucket hit and split,” and “Agata was as good as dead, and there had been so many tears shed” — a cacophony of rhymes.
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Ugliness, again, may be the point: this is a book about ugliness. And in Moshfegh’s hands, ugliness can become fascinating, even beautiful. This is what happens in Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation. But in Lapvona, ugliness stays ugly; the path to beauty has been blocked by what feels like unprocessed authorial anger, and by the sort of contempt that zooms right past the characters and hits instead the reader, leaving us wondering why, precisely, we’re reading a novel that has so little interest in giving us anything to enjoy.
Fiction: Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
Jonathan Cape, 304 pages, hardcover €19.50; e-book £9.99