2 August 2022
On Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh
This book crossed my nose during the Creative Nonfiction unit of the Intro to Creative Writing Course I am currently attending virtually at Central New Mexico Community College. One of my fellow students, coincidentally also named Megan (she goes by Adair in our class to avoid confusion), wrote a literary criticism essay on Lapvona. Her description of the horrors located between this book’s front and back cover piqued my interest, but what really got me was the student’s reluctance to draw out any clear message. Her take was essentially “life is suffering” and “humanity is absurd chaos.” I didn’t buy it. I had to read it for myself.
To start, I must disagree with Adair’s claim that Moshfegh avoids singling out a “hero” in the story. I believe our hero is singled out on page one, in Grigor. Just because the story steps away from Grigor for some 200 pages doesn’t mean he cannot carry our message or some semblance of morality. He certainly does, frequently at the expense of his own wellbeing (as we see in the ending, in particular). Moshfegh focuses in those 200 pages, instead, on her anti-hero, Malik. Perhaps, in that sense, this story carries a moral in the inverse.
Let me address Adair’s other claim before I move on. Adair represents Moshfegh’s tale as one of “absurd chaos.” In her critique, Adair represents each character’s actions and motives as unpredictable. I disagree with Adair here, too. Moshfegh is meticulous with her third person omniscient perspective throughout the book: each character’s motivations are laid painfully bare, and there is a pattern. Her characters’ behaviors are influenced by their lot in life (some might call it luck or circumstance). They each act according to what might be expected of them. I’d love to have known a specific textual passage Adair would use here to defend her argument; that way I could inspect it. But even Lispeth, who seems so just and wise for her age, is justified in her awful treatment of Malek: Malek killed her lover! Likewise, Ina’s resentment of Malik for nursing from her makes sense despite her maternal character – what does Malik ever truly give her in return? One-sided relationships breed such resentment; in his disability, from his circumstance, Malik was born to take. I’d argue that he could have no relationship devoid of resentment.
Ok, one more point on the characters: Villiam shows how completely each of these characters Moshfegh creates lives in a world contrived by his/her own mind. When Jacob is killed, Villiam comes down to find his wife, Dibra in raptures over their son’s death. Villiam’s entire life is a ruse upheld by servants to keep him happy, and so he believes that his son’s death is likewise an act: “Villiam was so accustomed to being entertained that any drama, however real it was, seemed to him as one staged for his private amusement” (81). Villiam’s perception of reality is a caricature of real life – but he’s not the only character that lives this way. It’s clear that most of these characters do; and that’s the way life is, isn’t it? That’s precisely how we all stroll about, thinking that we’re the main characters of our own stories. We are as much as we are not; we are of ultimate importance as much as we are insignificant. It’s something to remember – something Villiam was never taught. To believe otherwise is unhealthy narcissism.
Here are the key messages I found in Lapvona:
Organized Religion as Control:
Throughout the novel, it is abundantly clear that Villiam and Father Barnabas are using the church down in the village to control the villagers by fear. The villagers have suffered much: rapists and pillagers, fires, famine, flood, poverty. Every one of these challenges was directed by Villiam. Then, Barnabas communicated to the villagers that such hardships were the result of their infidelity to their lord, Villiam or their God. This created the perfect mechanism to control those who serve the lord. Barnabas could hide behind his God, and Villiam could hide behind Barnabas. Evidence? OK, Grigor tells Ina,
‘Father Barnabas said that there was a breach of security down in hell, and that the Devil flew up to Earth, and it made the world hot and dried it all out. And now God has closed heaven’s gates to keep him out. If the Devil gets into heaven, I don’t know what we’ll do.’ Grigor stiffened, hearing the preposterousness of the story for the first time. (218)
So Barnabas can make the villagers believe it is their own fault, or the Devil’s fault, that their village went without water for two months, when there was plenty of water up the hill at the manor – Villiam just wouldn’t share it.
What does it all mean? Moshfegh is not going to say that Christianity is bad; of course not. The point is not to point fingers, but to proffer a magnifying glass. Inspect your faith; inspect your organized religion. Who benefits from your faith? Is it God, the church, the monarchy? Do not be unquestioning dupes. That is our obligation, to question the way that Ina invites Grigor to do.
Freedom and Salvation lie in Connection rather than Diconnection/Suffering:
The entire novel follows the plight of people who believe that the more pious a person is, the better – that entrance into heaven is guaranteed by volume of suffering endured on earth. Thus, the peasants deliberately make themselves miserable. Jude self-flagellates, Malek begs to be physically abused, Lispeth starves herself. The only ones exempt of such belief are the lord and his family.
Finally, Grigor sees through the fog. He asks Jude,
‘Why should I be a slave to fear if Jesus has already saved me?’ Grigor asked.
‘Everyone is ashamed. So they pretend they’re perfect. But everybody sins. Only God is perfect,’ Jude said.
‘That’s what I keep telling my children,’ Grigor said.
‘People don’t like it when the truth is easy,’ Jude said. ‘Let them think what they want.’ (239)
It is in these lines that I believe Moshfegh draws clear distinction between faith and organized religion. There is nothing wrong with Christianity; there is something very wrong with churches and governments implementing Christianity for their own gain.
But these lines contain an additional message: “why be a slave to fear?” Grigor asks. Why indeed! Ina holds the answer. Ina was raised outside of the reach of the church, the village, the manor; she was raised in nature and identifies with birds. Ina’s worldview is not anti-Christian, but it is certainly more pagan – of the earth. I love this. At one point, Marek remembers a song Ina sang to him while he nursed, as a child:
‘I’ll be dead and you’ll be dead,’ a cheery song meant to soothe Marek into the lull of a certain infinity. (143)
Ina’s faith borders on Taoist. Ina may be the only character who knows, from the start, that the church and the lord are in cahoots to control the villagers – although clearly she is unable to save the villagers on a grand scale, she does make an effort at the individual, interpersonal level. There’s symbolism in her role as the village wet nurse. She is mother to the entire village; everyone has nursed from her breasts. What Adair saw as grotesque in older men seeking Ina to nurse from her breasts is symbolic: they’re seeking what they cannot find elsewhere in the village: human connection, vulnerability, and intimacy. Their faith has forbidden them these gifts, so Ina provides.
Salvation through vulnerable connection is also represented via the relationship between Lispeth and Jacob. We see it most acutely when they “accidentally” hold hands under the table:
They felt the pulse of blood in each other’s fingers, and just the slightest movement of a thumb or pinky was ecstasy. It had been so intense that Lispeth had closed her eyes and dropped her head, and Jacob’s mouth had opened and his gaze had drifted away from his ink and paper into the corner of the room. (104)
Nowhere else in the novel do two lovers enjoy such a naïve, transparent connection (okay, maybe Dibra and Luka). Later, Grigor and Ina share a connection, but theirs is calmer, ancient, comfortable.
By representing the villagers all as compounding their suffering by attempting to avoid more suffering, Moshfegh’s message appears to me to be that we cannot run from suffering any more than we can chase joy. Our freedom lies, instead, in accepting both while attempting to alleviate suffering for others rather than for ourselves. In doing so, we will find a natural sense of comfort, wonder, calm. My favorite passages representing this are those that illustrate nature in both its dearth and its bounty – the characters who take time to note the beauty in each. I absolutely love how Grigor steps outside of all organized culture to find his freedom in connecting with the land by growing his own herbs and vegetables. We see that today, but we call them crazies; are they so crazy, really?
What Adair chocked up to human grotesqueness and chaos in this novel I see as – just humanity. Who knows if a tale of this nature could’ve been true in the distant past; it is true today, Moshfegh has only caricaturized it to make her point.
Read it. It moves super quickly and may just open your eyes to the organizations that we allow to rule our lives and steal our joy.