A bleak world and pathetic protagonist in Ottessa Moshfegh’s ‘Lapvona’

Ottessa Moshfegh’s newest novel, “Lapvona,” is a shocking leap for the author, but not wholly unexpected. Perhaps her most explicit venture into the surreal, Moshfegh dives straight into a medieval fantasy world where religion reigns supreme and horse eyes are a sufficient cure for blindness. The novel’s content is gritty and grotesque — it’s definitely hard to stomach at large doses — but Moshfegh’s accessible writing style makes it difficult to not suck the entire book up in one sitting.

“Lapvona” is both the name of the book and the setting of the novel. Its narration follows Marek, the 13-year-old son of a shepherd named Jude. Suffering from Jude’s physical and verbal abuse, the only solace Marek finds is with Ina, a blind woman who has nursed nearly every villager and is known through the town to have unique abilities to communicate with birds and other natural creatures. The people of Lapvona are deeply religious and their lives revolve around the church, which is led by the corrupt Father Barnabas. Marek enjoys the safety that his religion and subordinacy in a religious hierarchy provide. Lording over Lapvona from atop his castle is Villam, a casually cruel and uncaring king who exploits citizens while living in over-the-top opulence. After an unfortunate mistake puts Marek closer than he’s ever been to King Villam, the story unfolds as famine grips the people of Lapvona and Marek has to deal with the consequences of his own actions.

Marek has physical ailments that are a frequent target of mocking and abuse from his father and the villagers, as well as self-loathing. He is described to have “grown crookedly” with a misshapen head and a twisted spine that causes his arm to be permanently bent across his body. The novel constantly reiterates that Marek is “damaged,” not sound in mind or body, and the other characters’ perspectives share how disgusting they find him.

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