Moshfegh's new novel explores death, spirituality, and the abject
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s fourth novel, we find ourselves in the middle ages, in the vaguely Eastern European village of Lapvona (the novel’s namesake). We are, however, immediately forced to shake off any idealized images of medieval times. Moshfegh’s fictional village is far from the romantic visions of stone castles, ginger princesses, and silvery knights that everyone from the pre-Raphellites to Walt Disney have tried to feed us. Following the residents and leaders of the village, Lapvona is a meditation on human nature. A physically repellent experience with little plot, describing the most carnal and somatic human experiences, the book is grotesque— yet somehow deliciously so.
The revolting is not a new theme for Moshfegh. Anyone familiar with her corpus of work cannot ignore the delight the author seems to take in documenting the abscesses, the waste, and the repulsions of life. Her work forces us to reckon with what Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva termed “the abject”. The abject, which Kristeva derives from the action noun abjection, is that which is rejected by society due to its failure to abide by norms of what is acceptable — specifically, she argues, we reject that which forces us to cope with our corporeal reality.
This awareness of bodily truth surfaces, for example, when we see a corpse. The corpse, existing in the living world, is representative of “death infesting life”. The boundary between what is ordered, systematic, and pure is disrupted by something vile, repulsive but very true-to-life that we have intentionally attempted to hide. We often respond carnally — we vomit, we faint — showing our discomfort with the disruption.
The abject also exists in disruptions of social norms. It is “the criminal with a good conscience, the rapist without scruple, the killer who claims to save”. A criminal who simply refuses morality is not abject as he can neatly be placed outside the lines of acceptability, never bleeding into our carefully curated realities. It is that which is morally murky which is abject.
Put simply, the abject is the encroachment of “the Real” into “the Symbolic Order”, exposing to us the carnal reality of life, afar from the societal norms which seek to blind us to them. Beyond just the mortality of our spirits, we reckon with the fact that our physical bodies will one day rot, becoming abject ourselves. Moshfegh forces this upon us in more ways than one. Her characters are rapists, cannibals, and murderers. They live by no distinct moral code, acting solely by the emotional impulses and bodily cravings that come upon them and we, the readers, are the voyeurs of their obscenities.
Lapvona distinguishes itself from Moshfegh’s other work by planting itself in an era foreign to its readers. While Eileen took its place in the 60s and My Year of Rest and Relaxation found itself in a turn of the millennium, pre-social media America, we still can find comfort in the modernity of the habits and the home of its characters. Lapvona is a period piece, rejecting the niceties of the 20th and 21st centuries in exchange for a Medieval village full of relentless cruelty.
Historical accuracy, however, is no concern of Moshfegh’s. Aside from allusions to the medieval, Lapvona does not occur in any distinguishable epoch. Further, the dialogue is modern with characters using phrases like “don’t be a loser” and “party tricks”. As we recognise ourselves in their speech, we somehow recognise ourselves in the characters, even when they act unencumbered by notions of morality. Moshfegh is seemingly communicating that while this might be a story of the past, the amorality pictured is ridiculously current.
Moshfegh has claimed to deliberate her own mortality since the age of five. In a piece of nonfiction, she recalls a moment in kindergarten when she had the realisation that she, and all those she knew, would one day die. In the face of this truth, the “absurd performance of a reality based on meaningless drivel” that we all abide by seemed to her a “farce”, a way of forgetting this inevitability. This nihilistic message often comes up in her work from the broodings of the protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation to a schoolgirl in the titular short story of her anthology Homesick For Another World — “there is no comfort here on Earth. There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace. Nothing is good here. Nothing. Every place you go on Earth, there is more nonsense.”
Moshfegh is obviously not the first among us to come to this disconcerting realisation — anxiety surrounding our inevitable demise is the very reason people turn to religion and spirituality. In an effort to cope with the discomfort of objective bodily reality, we are forced to turn to a belief in the unseen. Moshfegh grapples with this across her work, specifically referencing spiritual abnegation, an inability to truly have faith considering the bleak state of the world.
The titular protagonist of Eileen, for example, who comes from a Catholic background fails to find comfort in the concept of faith, stating “I didn’t believe in heaven, but I did believe in hell.” Lapvona deals with this at an even deeper level — the novel opens with a lyric from a Demi Lovato song: “I feel stupid when I pray”. Marek, arguably the key player in the large cast of characters, struggles with this spiritual hopelessness. In the face of violence, disease, and death, he does not understand the inaction of the merciful God he grew up learning about.
Coupling a lack of faith with colourful images of the abject, this book leaves us incapable of ignoring the horror of material life. It specifically reminds us what life would be without the deliberate curation of a society aiming for a strenuous standard of moral and physical purity. Lapvona’s central message is simple — death comes for us all.
Some may find 300 or so pages a tedious amount to communicate this relatively uncomplicated message. I, however, do not find the length to be an issue and this comes down to the sheer fact of Moshfegh’s writing. Her ability with the pen makes death and decay so very decadent.
Ottessa Moshfegh, a Booker Prize-shortlisted author, will be visiting Topping and Co. in St Andrews this August for a conversation on Lapvona.
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