Review of good and bad reviews of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona

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Image: Penguin Press

Would it be a coincidence that Ottessa Moshfegh’s brazenly obnoxious new novel, Lapvone, came out on the first day of summer this year? I can’t imagine it is. The timing works in deadpan harmony with the book’s content, a seemingly medieval story that marries bloody fairytale vibes with contemporary cynicism about a society that’s on its way to hell, if not already charred by flames lit from within. The idea of ​​this grotesque – in which abuse and humiliation are the norm, and cannibalism, degradation, human starvation and rape are key features – being someone’s reading on the beach doesn’t isn’t funny haha, per se, but it strikes a picture as ironic as being hilarious. It’s like noticing a deflated eggplant float sticking out of the mouth of the great white shark heading your way.

The book is so acrid with suffering that an ocean breeze would do nothing to mask its misery. It’s not just gore – the dismemberment of a corpse to feed a starving witch during a difficult situation; the eyeball beating on the corpse of a teenager. It’s not just the abuse – Lapvona set lord Villiam has a skinned servant with a grape rubbed on an asshole for his entertainment in a dark and shitty comedy scene that just might have gone wrong. integrate into Pier Paolo Pasolini’s adaptation of Sade Salò or the 120 days of Sodom. The book is difficult beyond its penchant for testing the gag reflex. A changing third-person point of view immerses us in the minds of a dozen characters, often within the same scene and sometimes within the same paragraph. I haven’t read a book so in love with its own omniscience since Frank Herbert’s equally devious book. Dunes. It’s as if Moshfegh, who until Lapvone wrote his first-person novels, just discovered a new superpower, and can’t wait to show it off. What if the mass thought-sharing capabilities that Twitter enables were grafted onto the feudal life of yesteryear? What if God was one of us?

In Lapvone, Moshfegh monitors selfishness at all levels of the social ladder and raises his hands. Sometimes all you can do is laugh, right? Lapvone is as stiff as a burlap shirt but unfolds like a soap opera, steadily rolling out new revelations. (For this reason, some of the plot points discussed in this review could be considered spoilers.) The effect of these somewhat jarring sensibilities is to electrocute any notion of a high/low cultural divide. As primitive as the novel may be, it is almost devoid of pretense. The characters say what they think, or if they don’t, we can still read their thoughts. There’s an unusual focus on dreams, which seems inconsequential to the plot, insofar as the book has one (the overall effect is more like watching Moshfegh play with the literary dolls she comes from). to cut out). Moshfegh, whose last book, 2018 My year of rest and relaxation, found its protagonist largely unconscious, shares a surrealist’s fixation on the dream world. Visual artist Louise Bourgeois once said that “the surrealists made fun of everything. And I see life as a tragedy. Moshfegh’s ironic description of human misery suggests that these two worldviews need not be mutually exclusive.

Author Ottessa Moshfegh in 2018.

Author Ottessa Moshfegh in 2018.
Photo: Roberto Ricciuti (Getty Images)

The book’s ostensible protagonist, Marek, a 13-year-old handicapped peasant, relishes his father’s abuse in a way that sometimes takes on an erotic and masochistic twist (“he too loved the pain, and he was ashamed of it”) but drifts above all of piety (“Marek was comforted by his father’s renewed disdain, for it made God love him more out of pity”). Because we can read other characters’ minds, we can see them talking bullshit to each other. “Villiam thought Marek’s waking martyrdom was some kind of barbaric vanity,” Moshfegh writes. Villiam, meanwhile, hires bandits to terrorize the poor people he rules over and plunder their resources (“Terror and grief were good for morale, Villiam believed”). He holds a food contest while the people of Lapvona starve and when presented with his dead son, he asks with a chuckle, “Is that an eye sticking out?” Ina, the forest-dwelling witch, serves as nursemaid for the village, but to mitigate any potential disinterestedness one might suspect stemming from her service, nursing temporarily restores the blind woman’s sight. No one in this book thinks outside of their own interests for very long. Moshfegh has long been fascinated by the disgusting products of the human body, and in Lapvone egocentric thinking is presented as the most unseemly function of the body.

Moshfegh’s cynicism and brazen refusal to make her books safe spaces gives her a sort of Gen X sensibility (she was born in 1981, and so by most measures she just missed the threshold for that generation ). She doesn’t show virtue, which can be interpreted as a display of virtue, but it’s nonetheless refreshing to see someone who doesn’t come across as friendly. Reading it is like being kissed by lips as soft as ethylene glycol.

Moshfegh trades in negativity, which means she effectively offers herself to harsh criticism. Those who might think it best to pick up a book they dislike that is bland or cheerful in tone may feel more justified in throttling something that is more or less grounded in contempt for humanity. . At least, that’s my theory as to why the joy behind some teardowns of Lapvone is so tangible. Moshfegh’s literary status can also be considered. She is so synonymous with contemporary cerebral literature that people actually believe her cultural position is about as charming as it gets. They want to dunk on it. After a brief history of Moshfegh’s literary scatology in a highly entertaining and illuminating review, New Yorkby Andrea Longchu tear in: “Moshfegh’s latest shit is his new novel, Lapvone.” “It’s hard to see what Moshfegh is trying to achieve other than notoriety,” writing The new statesmanby Johanna Thomas-Corr. “Ottessa Moshfegh is a literary hack who just wants to shock people,” claims the Times Literary SupplementIt’s Claire Lowdon. Even in a mostly positive review, The Observerby Jamie Hood expresses some sympathy with Moshfegh’s enemies.

But there were almost as many raves as there are pans Lapvone, according to review aggregator. In terms of division, the only novel released this year that approximate is Hanya Yanagihara In Paradise. take it down Lapvone blurbs on bookmarks and it’s as if each reviewer is reading a different book. Lapvone is “utterly bizarre, wickedly funny and heavily satirical.” In Lapvone, “what is missing is the destructive spirit of Moshfegh.” His “delusional eccentric.” His “too childish and mute to excite a reaction beyond impatience.” “Some of his sentences dazzled me so much that I had to put the book down and expose myself for a moment to the light of his prose”, write a review. “The prose, as elsewhere in Moshfegh’s work, is sometimes brisk, but mostly lazy”, wrote another.

In Lapvone, Moshfegh engineered a cacophony of competing thoughts, and the critical response to the book produced noise of similar density. I find that exciting. The notion of monoculture has long since faded, and that says a lot about the power of a writer when they can achieve even the slightest consensus; here, it is not a uniformity of opinion that characterizes the mass response to Moshfegh’s book, but the intensity behind these divergent opinions. Moshfegh’s strength of character – his presence in his work has never been more pronounced than in Lapvonewhere her diligent omniscience makes her divine – is impossible to ignore.

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Drawing: Penguin Press

Even a teardown of the book as epic as Long Chu’s New York The essay cannot help but express its admiration for Moshfegh – the review is so attentive to Moshfegh’s themes and quirks that it reads like a tribute, justifying its disappointment by establishing how much Long Chu thinks of Moshfegh . In fact, I can’t decide if I like Lapvone or Long Chu’s evaluation of more; I’m happy to live in a world where I don’t have to choose.

However, I dispute Long Chu’s assertion that Moshfegh “continues to write as if her readers are fundamentally beneath her; as if they, unlike her, had never stopped considering that the world could be bullshit; as if they were to be led, tricked, or coaxed into knowledge by those whom the universe has seen fit to appoint as their shepherds. Maybe it’s because I found Moshfegh extremely easy to live with. when we spoke on the phone in 2018 and I am therefore biased, but I think Moshfegh writes to connect with his people. I think she writes with the hope that her reader already believes the world is bullshit, and that if not, her books will be all the more punitive. win/win.

By probing the Lapvone critics, I notice some frustration with the inability to figure out what it all means. Again, I think a lot of the burden here falls on the negativity – Moshfegh’s violence and desperation should serve a greater cause or risk being seen as gratuitous. Certainly there is a lot in the book that is about the moment. On the one hand, Marek is the product of an incestuous rape, and when he finds the woman who tried to abort him, she refuses to connect with him. She made her choice. For another, what Lapvone really hits the cancer of selfishness on society, which is abundantly apparent in its characters and in the world around us. If we found a way to share and respect the earth, it wouldn’t burn. Moshfegh makes a move towards that with a funhouse mirror that both reflects sad truths and creates fun embellishments. She sculpts contemporary misery like clay, if only to create a diversion. She writes novels, not prescriptions.

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