Ottessa Moshfegh does not read her books after they’ve gone to print. When she’s working on a story, she’s deep inside the flow of it, focused on getting things right. Once she can not make any more changes, it’s on to the next project. What we feel when we read her unsettling work is between us and God; she’s done with it.
Moshfegh was born in Iran and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and a career in the arts was all but destined as the daughter of two musicians who taught at the New England Conservatory of Music. Her first short story, McGlue (2014), was well received, but it was Moshfegh’s first full novel, the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Eileen (2015), that earned her a name in the literary world associated with gruesome scenes and uncomfortable characters. She writes about people who are trapped in isolated routines but who are on the edge of something, usually some kind of psychological break. The protagonists of both Eileen and her following novel, the New York Times best-seller My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), share an often-grotesque fascination with the physicality of being a person. Bodily functions are described in depth, alternately reviled and sexualized. And yet, there’s a tenderness and truth to Moshfegh’s writing that keep the discomfort from becoming unbearable. She’s one of those rare writers who has enchanted both the general public and serious critics.
It seems like Moshfegh’s default setting is creator, not consumer. She is not on social media, and she does not own a TV, though she often falls asleep to raw police-interrogation footage on YouTube. That lack of distraction might explain how she’s released a novella, a short-story collection, and now four novels in the last eight years, but she also just loves the work. “I’ve had to fill my life with a lot of other things to keep from releasing three books a year,” Moshfegh says.
When she’s working on a piece, Moshfegh does her best not to consider the market implications or audience reactions, even though it can be hard not to think about her place in the literary machine. “I just feel so fortunate that I still have a place on the shelf,” Moshfegh says. “I would be writing no matter what; I just would probably be writing more in a cabin in the woods rather than a house in Pasadena. ”
And with her newest book, Lapvona, Moshfegh is claiming her place in the so-called literary machine once again. Though it was not the book she initially imagined. If you read interviews with Moshfegh from around the time of her previous book, Death in Her Hands, which came out in early 2020, she mentions working on a completely different novel, one set in San Francisco and Shanghai at the turn of the century. When I ask her what happened to that project, Moshfegh has the same answer most of us have about our best-laid plans for the beginning of the decade: “Covid happened.”
Moshfegh says, “I needed a project to coexist with me in this container both because it felt like an opportunity and because I desperately also needed a way out, a way to escape the horror of the situation.” As the world tried to deal with horror on a global scale, Moshfegh dove into a more localized kind of horror. But this was not just escapism. Instead of anxiously bingeing on Netflix, she used her prodigious powers of creation to push back against the confusion of the pandemic: “When you’re the writer, you can control what’s going on.”
Lapvona mostly follows Marek, a disabled teenage shepherd, and his father, Jude, a selfish religious absolutist who resents the good fortune of his distant relations, through a tumultuous year in the town of Lapvona. But the limited, omniscient third-person narration, which is often cracked wide open by the whispered gossip of birds, does not stay too focused on those two. We also meet the town’s gluttonous lord, Villiam, and his taxidermist son, Jacob. Then there are the herbalist and hedgewitch Ina, Marek’s maybe-dead mother Agata, and Jacob’s servant and girlfriend, Lispeth. Finally, we meet Grigor, the only villager with any suspicions about the way his world works. Each of these distinct perspectives is important to building the story of the town.
Lapvona is a fruitful place with a peaceful history and a population given to trusting in the powers that be, which makes it ripe for exploitation. The citizens are fundamentally naive when it comes to their ruler and anyone who comes from outside their tiny world.
This trusting cast of characters seamlessly comes together, creating an almost visceral image of this troubled town. And while Moshfegh is known for capturing the grotesque, it’s never meant to be the whole point of Lapvona. All of the ick factor in this novel – which includes everything from infanticide to cannibalism – serves a purpose. She’s trying to show you what it means to be trapped in the poisoned town. And perhaps, places beyond the fictional world of Lapvona.
“There is something special about Lapvona, and that is that its earth has high value,” Moshfegh says. “It produces fruit and vegetables and crops in a way that is uncommon in the region. And so, when something is of higher value, it becomes vulnerable to attack. And it also becomes vulnerable to exploitation. ” An explicitly feudal town, Lapvona is a study in the evils of inequality: “As soon as there’s money involved, and there are rich people and poor people, things start becoming dishonest.”
The Lapvonians scramble to survive bandits, a rapacious ruler, and a devastating drought over the course of the novel. Along the way, they do whatever it takes to live and feel good about living, which usually means abusing whatever power they have: their feudal right to rule, wealth, familial bonds, religion, or even the hedgewitch magic one character practices. They resort to gruesome, inhumane behavior to survive the manipulation and deceit they face at the hands of their overlord and one another.
And yet with all that, the people of Lapvona aren’t particularly evil, even if they regularly compound the town’s deep well of trauma. “I think on one level, they’re just very simple people who want to do the right thing and go to heaven,” Moshfegh says. “And then on the other hand, they are carrying around these personalities, which are also God-given, and they do not know how to reconcile who they really are with who they think they should be.” The Lapvonians are looking for both safety and an assurance that they’re special. But in their tightly controlled community, anything that gives a person power over another person is twisted into exploitation.
Lapvona is a departure from Moshfegh’s older work in many ways. The most basic – but possibly most defining – is the perspective. Unlike her other three novels, her novella, and many of her short stories, Lapvona is narrated in third person. Moshfegh was getting too comfortable writing in first person and wanted to challenge herself, and the global events inspiring the novel also made her want to look at a story from a less-limited perspective. “It felt more dynamic and like the story I wanted to tell, which is the story of a place, not the story of a single person.” Besides, she says, “I think if you keep repeating yourself, you’re sort of digging your own grave.”
And unlike earlier Moshfegh protagonists, the citizens of Lapvona aren’t individually self-isolating. If Eileen, from Moshfegh’s 2015 novel, Eileenand the unnamed protagonist of 2018’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation resent the speed and interconnectedness of contemporary America, the people in Lapvona are trapped by their lack of connection. They have to rely on one another for everything “in a way that we do not do anymore,” she says, but in this town that only “builds delusion and dependency.” There is no outside comparison or envy of the way other people live, but neither is there any conception of a better way of life. When there are scary, unknown people to blame for their issues, the Lapvonians do not have to confront their homegrown evils. “And then in a crisis, like during the famine, it creates enmity, jealousy, and selfishness,” Moshfegh says. “So, it was just a way to see a microcosm of human society at its worst.”
While the terror of this town can feel distressingly solid, Lapvona is a made-up world, though inspired by a real place. “It’s definitely Europe,” Moshfegh says, adding that she spent time researching the flora and fauna of Eastern Europe. But the vague out-of-place-ness that defines Lapvona is purposeful. “I also just have a thing about writing about places that feel real but aren’t,” Moshfegh said. Something feeling too real can make readers comfortable, and Moshfegh does not want that. “When the world is so twisted away from your real life and what you’ve observed, it has more of an impact,” she says.
Another new step for Moshfegh is the spirituality of this novel. The characters are regularly defined by their relationship with God, whether they’re dismissive of religion or fervent believers. The ruling family are either atheists or simply comfortable with an unquestioned faith, their servants have an almost animistic connection to the earth, and the villagers follow a peculiar, strictly vegetarian version of medieval Christianity. Each class uses their relationship with religion to confirm their prejudice, arrogance, and masochism.
While Moshfegh describes herself as “someone who’s constantly practicing having a faith,” her earlier protagonists have been on the fringes of religion at best. “It’s something that I’ve been living with for many years, but I have not had a project in which my characters would likely have relationships with God,” she says. If Eileen and the lead of My Year of Rest and Relaxation feel “cosmically alone, in a universe that is very inhospitable to them as spirits,” the people of Lapvona are gratefully constrained by a religion that guides their daily actions. Moshfegh’s own faith is not tied to a specific religion as much as to “a more spiritual understanding of reality,” but she uses the isolated, absolutist world of Lapvona to explore exploitation from religious authority acting in concert with the economic power of the region .
Moshfegh says the closest thing to a religion in her house growing up was music and that her faith now is a self-defined spirituality with a large emphasis on creativity as a pursuit of peace. But she does not necessarily expect the literary world to care about her faith. “My curiosities are mine, and I have no expectations of other people,” she says. “So, there’s that, and then there are some hard lumps to swallow when you’re dealing with an industry that is propelled by capitalism.”
When I ask if it was hard to write such transgressive episodes without getting lost in them, Moshfegh is quick to broaden the scope of the question. “I feel like the world is so transgressive, and we’re living in an age where we’re starting to admit it,” she says. Looking back at the version of history she was taught in the ’80s, Moshfegh describes it a bit like she does the inhabitants of Lapvona: “It’s just so insane that we expect one another to be capable of progress when we’re holding on to lies about who we are and how we got here. So, I’ve always felt like that’s the obvious and glaring, ugly truth. ”
Moshfegh calls it a “shared insanity” – the yearning to change the world while not addressing its gravest ills. “Society is so sick, and yet we are hoping something good comes out of it,” she continues. The quiet people of Lapvona, governed by lies, greed, and power, are merely a reflection of the world today. So, if you’re disturbed by her work, good. You should be.
Shelbi Polk is a Durham, NC, based writer who just might read too much. Find here online at @shelbipolk on Twitter.
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