Dirty operator

InMy Year of Rest and Relaxation(TLS, August 17, 2018) – the standout of Ottessa Moshfegh’s four novels – a conceptual artist videos the affectless narrator’s sedative-induced hibernation. The narrator doesn’t really rate him as an artist.

He just wanted to shock people. And he wanted people to love and despise him for it. His audience, of course, would never be truly shocked. People were only delighted at his concepts. He was an art-world hack. But he was successful. He knew how to operate.

What about Moshfegh? How should we rate her? Her work is routinely and admiringly described as “depraved”. Is she using shock tactics? Or does she believe her husband, Luke Goebel, when he tells her, “I am thinking that you’re a genius. That your writing is genius. You’re a genius”? (See Ariel Levy’s skilful and devastating profile of Moshfegh in the New Yorker, July 2, 2018. It is poker-faced, seriously detailed, full of astounding quotes from Moshfegh. On an old predilection for googling dead people every day: “I just got into the habit. It gave me energy.”)

Moshfegh got sick of everyone saying how “gross and ugly” the protagonist of the Booker prize- shortlisted noir novel Eileen (TLS, July 22, 2016) was. (Eileen enjoys purging herself with laxatives and going without a shower so that she can “stew” in her own “filth”.) In retaliation the author made the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation extremely beautiful. “I was like, fuck you! I’ll write a book about a woman that looks like a model. Try to tell me she’s disgusting!” (This is from Kaitlin Phillips’s profile in The Cut, July 19, 2018.) But the novel was still provocative. When the narrator leaves her job at an art gallery, for example, she defecates on the floor, wipes herself and stuffs the shitty tissue into the mouth of a taxidermized dachshund.

In fact, the book Moshfegh wrote directly after Eileen was Death in Her Hands (TLS, October 9, 2020), a rather worthy meta-mystery that cut back on the filth and (consequently?) made less of a splash when it was finally published a few years later. Could Moshfegh’s new novel, Lapvona, be a canny corrective back in the other direction? “Brace yourself for Lapvona”, warns the press release, “a rollercoaster ride of depravation and perversion.” It is the sort of book that makes you wish you could have been there when the manuscript landed at the publishing house. What did they make of it, really, all those agents and editors and publicists?

The novel is certainly a departure for Moshfegh, whose previous works (including the novella McGlue2014; TLS, October 20, 2017, following a late UK release date) have all been first-person torrents, propelled by the weird psyches of their outsider narrators. Now we are in the omniscient third person, with a large cast of characters and a quasi-medieval setting somewhere in eastern Europe-ish. The ick factor has metastasized: on every other page you will find a description of rotting flesh, or someone eating their own pubic hair or suckling the dried-up breasts of an old blind woman.

Lapvona is a village presided over by Villiam, an overlord who employs bandits to ransack the place “any time there was a rumor of dissent”. In the village lives Marek, a disfigured teenager. He is the son of a beautiful but violent shepherd called Jude. Marek looks forward to his beatings: “Pain was good … it brought him closer to his father’s love and pity.”

Jude tells Marek that his mother, Agata, died after his birth, but this is a lie. Jude found Agata in the woods when she was a teenager. He chained her up in his house and raped her. “The white that dripped from his greasy penis smelled like a summer rain, iron in it, tangy.” Agata ran away immediately after Marek’s birth, having first tried to abort him with herbs prepared by Ina, the mystical, blind village wet nurse. The attempted abortions explain Marek’s disfigurement.

Ina’s milk came in when she was in her forties. She discovered that suckling from her own nipple temporarily restored her sight. Now her milk has dried up, but Marek still comes for the occasional comfort suckle, “[his] saliva dripping from the corners of his mouth like Ina’s milk used to.” One time Ina let him suck the “milk” from her pubis, “but never again … She cared too much for the boy to so abuse him.”’

One day Marek throws a rock at Jacob, the son of Villiam. Jacob falls from a high place and dies. “His face was split and flattened on the side that had hit, and an eyeball was hanging from its socket.” Villiam decides that he and Jude must swap sons – the living Marek in return for Jacob’s stiff corpse, which smells pungently of wild garlic as it decomposes.

A drought comes to Lapvona. Villiam has a secret reservoir near the palace, so he and Marek and all the staff are fine. The villagers have to eat anything they can find. There is an infestation of insects. Jude opens the door one day and nearly inhales a swarm of flies and bees. “He clapped his hands over his mouth as they flew in, chewed them up, and tried to swallow. The bugs were sticky in his throat. He had no saliva to help him suck them down.”

In the palace Villiam passes the time with parlor games. He puts a grape up Marek’s asshole, then makes the servant girl Lispeth eat it. They also have a sausage-eating contest. Marek forfeits the game by vomiting. Poor Lispeth is stuck with the clean-up. “Marek took a last glance at the shiny, brown muck of regurgitated meat in the bucket as she took it away.” (There is a lot of vomiting in this novel, and indeed throughout Moshfegh’s oeuvre.)

Jude finds a dead man called Klim and takes the corpse to Ina, from whom he also likes to comfort-suckle. Ina persuades him that they should eat Klim. “[Jude] pulled the left arm out, lifted the ax, and brought it down on the wrist. It broke at the joint, and the dry, loose skin split, but not all the way.” Jude leaves Klim’s headless torso in his own cottage, where Marek finds it; Believing it to be his father, he takes it away for burial. Jude, meanwhile, is running about the woods with Klim’s head. “The man’s jaw hung open, his tongue thin and gray between sparse brown teeth.” Jude throws the head away. Then he stumbles on Agata, who has escaped from the nunnery she’s been hiding in all these years. He calls her name and she turns to him.

Even after all his ire, his spite, his disgust, his struggle, the movement of her head toward him filled his heart with longing … He had to have her … Already his penis was hard and throbbing … Jude clumsily poked at the red froth of hair on her pubis, then stabbed at the lips to her sheath, which was clenched tight like a fist … He’d last known her sheath tortured and bleeding, straining to birth a distorted skull … He fucked her until he collapsed, ejecting what felt like cold poison into her womb.

Well, that seems as good a point as any to wrap up this precis. Hopefully it’s given you a flavor of this truly unique novel. We are only about halfway through at this stage, so those of you who want to know exactly how Ina’s old blind eyes decay when she replaces them with the eyes of a horse will just have to buy the book.

If there was an eating contest and you consumed, say, Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, seasons 1–4 of Game of Thronesa few high-octane episodes of Neighborsa Nativity play and a children’s edition of The Canterbury Talesyou might just vomit out Lapvona. There are, no doubt, still lots of searching questions to be asked. Could the whole novel be an invective against the greed of the 1 per cent? Is the drought a metaphor for Covid? Perhaps the clue is in the epigraph,”I feel stupid when I pray”: when Marek finds his father’s torso in the darkened house, is Moshfegh invoking Jesus’s death and resurrection? Or is this yet another clever exposé of the fictional fiction? Or a parable, perhaps, about how desperate we all are for our parents’ love? Or maybe the prose is just so brilliant that it doesn’t actually matter what it’s about?

Hold on, I can answer that last one. The prose, as elsewhere in Moshfegh’s oeuvre, is occasionally vivid, but mostly lazy. We have shoulder blades like “sharp wings” and “tendons as fine as gut strings”. Periphrasis stands in for period diction: “No one who saw the two together would ever guess they were of blood relation.” Moshfegh struggles, not for the first time, with narrative shaping; and, unlike in the other three novels, she doesn’t have a compelling central character around which to yoke all the random, repetitive episodes.

When writing McGlue, which is based on a historical character (a nineteenth-century sailor who purportedly murdered his friend while drunk), Moshfegh felt as if she was channelling her protagonist’s spirit. “I thought that maybe he was angry at me for betraying him … It would give me the chills, and I would cry.” So perhaps she really does believe in her own genius. Or perhaps … perhaps Ottessa Moshfegh is a literary hack who just wants to shock people. But she’s successful. She knows how to operate.

Claire Lowdon’s novel Left of the Bang was published in 2015

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