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Invitation to a Flogging

Ottessa Moshfegh’s crude omniscience

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh. Penguin Press, 320 pages.

“I’m here to tell people the truth they don’t want to hear,” Ottessa Moshfegh declared in a 2017 interview with The Fanzine—a candid statement of purpose for an author whose novels have, to date, made use of first-person narrators embroiled in varying degrees of self-deception and delusion. The most important truths, after all, are never straightforward, lying obvious in the ditch between what one tells oneself and what others see.

Moshfegh’s latest offering marks an intriguing departure—not in terms of her broader mission, which applies as much as ever, but in the delivery method. Instead of inhabiting the blinkered subjectivity of a single character, Lapvona examines the interior lives of an entire medieval village, in particular, their relationships to God, and their ignorance, often intentional, of certain truths.

The novel opens in the aftermath of a raid upon the village by a group of bandits who have slaughtered several residents, including two small children. Such raids are common occurrences, but it is swiftly disclosed that the villagers don’t realize that “the bandits worked for Villiam,” the lord of Lapvona, who employs them to ransack the village to quell dissent among the farmers. Father Barnabas, the village priest and Lord Villiam’s right-hand man, is sent to “listen to the confessions of the people down below and report any sagging dispositions or laziness to the man above.” The villagers, in turn, blindly imbibe the priest’s message that their deprivation is in God’s name—while he and Villiam gorge themselves with abandon.

The most deluded among them is thirteen-year-old Marek, the disfigured son of a shepherd named Jude, whose farcical obsession with virtue and love of God mandates excessive masochistic suffering—namely at the hands of his father. Jude is so thoroughly disgusted by his weak son that he falls headlong into emotional and physical abuse, administering vicious attacks that leave Marek bloodied. But lest we feel a shred of pity for Marek, Moshfegh instructs us that these attacks are welcomed, even invited, by Marek, whose greatest wish is to “go to heaven, where God and his mother would love him.”

Lapvona is hell-bent against surprise—what pulls the reader through the narrative in place of elegant or intricate crafting is the utter spectacle of debasement.

Jude, however, has lied to his son about what happened to his mother. Agata—a mute runaway woman who Jude captured and raped—did not die in childbirth, as Marek was told; she ran away after giving birth to her son, who she had tried to abort with the assistance of Ina, Lapvona’s mystical wet nurse-cum-apothecary. But Jude isn’t completely up to speed on his domestic situation, either. The only person privy to the facts of the matter in their entirety is Ina, whose blindness has endowed her with occult powers, including the ability to gossip with the village’s birds. “The birds had told Ina about Agata, tongueless and wandering the woods. The birds thought, perhaps, that Ina would take pity on the girl. They told her the whole story.” It turns out that when Jude found Agata, she’d already been impregnated by her brother, a bandit—meaning Marek isn’t actually his biological son, making what little tolerance he musters up for the boy all the more pointless.

Moshfegh’s work has always trafficked in cruelty and contempt; her first-person narrators have tended to be brutal in their assessments of other characters, projecting a superiority that, though intimidating, has been perversely captivating to read. In all her previous novels, the protagonists’ contempt for the people around them is palpable, but by inhabiting their viewpoint, judgment on the protagonist themselves is reserved for the reader to make. In moving to omniscience, no character in Lapvona comes out unscathed.

The plot of the novel is set in motion when Marek accidentally-on-purpose kills Villiam’s son Jacob by hitting him with a rock, sending him over a cliff. Guilt-ridden, he leaves Jacob in a pool of his own blood, then realizes he’s left the dead boy’s bow and arrow behind. “Maybe [Marek] would come back and get them one day. If the bandits came to the pasture, he could protect the lambs and his father. Wouldn’t everyone be surprised if this small, twisted creature came to be their savior after all? These were his stupid thoughts as he ran.” The stupid in that final sentence is intriguing in how much it reveals. On the next page, Marek returns home “wet and trembling, his panting breath stinking of bile and his eyes pathetic and fearful.” This is a characteristically grotesque description from Moshfegh, but the word pathetic feels less like a disinterested adjective, and more like a value judgment. Whereas the extent of Moshfegh’s previous narrators’ own delusion has been ambiguous or slowly revealed, Lapvona gives away its secrets fast and for free. A barrage of forthrightly narrated insider knowledge, attributable to no one, leaves the reader with an unshakeable sense of how stupid, deluded, and misguided its characters are, how little they know of themselves and their relationships to one another.

What’s more, Lapvona doesn’t push the reader to feel much else for this tragic cast of characters. If readers of Moshfegh’s previous work have found those narrators sympathetic despite their unlikability, it is because they are given clues or back stories that account for their profound reclusiveness. In Lapvona, back stories are given, then resolutely undermined, sometimes in the same paragraph. Later in the novel we’re told that Dibra, Villiam’s atheist wife, has been having a secret affair with one of his courtiers, Luka (Jacob’s real father), an affair that predates her marriage to Villiam. “[Dibra] had once felt that there was a power in the way things happened, a kind of fatedness that she depended on, an order to life. After Jacob’s death, she lost that faith completely. Life was chaos. There were no rewards. Best to make the time tolerable at least. It never occurred to her that her philandering might have inspired God’s wrath.” Reading passages like this, it is difficult to feel sympathy for any character—the narration instructs us not to.

Recently, I chanced upon a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading in a local thrift store, the opening line of which announces that its protagonist, Cincinnatus C., has been sentenced to death. “So we are nearing the end,” the narrator announces. “The right-hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there were still plenty left . . . has suddenly, for no reason at all, become quite meager: a few minutes of quick reading already downhill.”

Why, then, read the rest of the book? Invitation’s narrative pull is in how it conspires, maddeningly, against certainty. Cincinnatus seeks knowledge of his execution date, but the prison staff refuses to give him—nor the reader—this precious information. He asks whether a meeting with his wife Marthe might be granted, but his detainers evade the question relentlessly. When a meeting is hinted at, Cincinnatus puts on “the best clothes he had with him,” only to be introduced to fellow inmate M’Sieur Pierre instead, who torments him with a variety of magic tricks. Not only does the prison staff play cruel pranks on Cincinnatus, confusing him at every turn, but the narrator seems a little capricious, too, mixing up characters’ names and fluidly switching between narrating Cincinnatus’ daydreams and the apparent goings on in the prison. These narrative tricks have an intentionally disorienting effect, building up to the novel’s final and shocking revelation. Nabokov expressed in the foreword to the English translation that Invitation’s ending ought to cause a diligent reader to “jump up, ruffling their hair.” In his eyes, the novel was a “violin in the void.”

Moshfegh has, on more than one occasion, invited comparisons to the Russian writer. “Someone once compared something I wrote to Nabokov, and I thought that was a huge compliment,” she told The New Yorker in 2018. Indeed, finding and reading Invitation as I wrote this piece felt fated, and not only for how the novels’ epigraphs mirror one another. In Lapvona, it’s “I feel stupid when I pray,” a lyric from the Demi Lovato song “Anyone.” The English translation of Invitation’s epigraph, attributed to the fictional Pierre Delalande, reads: “Like a madman thinks he’s God, we think we’re mortal.”

This is a novel that wants to—and succeeds—in alienating its readers, even the “good” ones.

Both authors assume a godlike position over their characters: Nabokov, like a chess master, manipulates his characters like pawns on a board; Moshfegh, like an entomologist, inspects her specimens so thoroughly that nothing is left unknown. The idea of an inaccessible and unbearable truth undergirds both novels, but how these authors treat and reveal these respective truths could not be more different. The narrative tricks Nabokov employs to withhold clarity are ingeniously crafty, while the bluntness of Moshfegh’s narration is more insidious. Lapvona is, in the end, hell-bent against surprise—what pulls the reader through the narrative in place of elegant or intricate crafting is the utter spectacle of debasement. At some points the violence is so over the top, so ridiculous, that one truly can’t help but laugh. When Marek confesses to Jude that it is he who is responsible for Jacob’s death, for instance, he bursts into tears, inciting his father to slap him across the face. As if the slap isn’t enough, “another tooth broke loose in Marek’s mouth, and he swallowed it and choked.”

This unrelenting cruelty and borderline sadism undoubtedly make for an interesting, if difficult, reading experience, and Moshfegh certainly pushes the boundaries of how much of it she can enact from her godlike perch. Eileen and Death in Her Hands took pride in subverting genre and narrative conventions, but Lapvona is by far her most extreme subversion in how, the more one reads, the more one begins to understand how little there is to grasp on to. It continues a project in her writing that began with Death in Her Hands—the exploration of futility, particularly as it relates to fiction. At the end of that novel, Vesta’s tragic expression of disappointment with her own life finds no catharsis, her world-building more a symptom of madness than of a lurid imagination.

With Lapvona, Moshfegh brings this project to its damning endpoint: the novel itself is revealed to be largely beside the point, its readers stupid for reading it. Throughout, Moshfegh lobs pointed comments at the creators and consumers of entertainment, to the extent that one wonders whether she is parodying the critical reception of her work. Villiam “liked grotesque topics of conversation, nasty comedy always conveyed as colloquially as a passing fancy. He liked games and tricks.” He hoards food while the villagers starve, and dams the river that would otherwise irrigate Lapvona’s drought-ridden soil, not out of incompetence, but for his own perverse entertainment. He is “dogged in his pursuit of diversion and demanded it of those around him,” often making the servants stage ridiculous and sadistic games for him to laugh at. In the latter half of the book, Lispeth, another servant at Villiam’s manor asks Marek how his father died (Marek thinks Jude is dead. He’s not, and Lispeth knows this); Marek feels that “her only curiosity was in the morbid details.” It’s true, the narrator tells us, “Lispeth got some pleasure now in asking, knowing that it must sting.”

Cincinnatus’ greatest source of anguish in Invitation to a Beheading is his desire to write a work that will take its reader’s breath away. “His eyes would melt, and, after he experiences this [work], the world will seem to him cleaner, fresher,” he writes on the pad of paper given to him at the prison. But to see the world anew through literature is to be manipulated by narrative craft, by language, and Lapvona is the work of an author disenchanted with such exploits. Moshfegh ought to be commended for departing from her usual first-person mode, but her newfound omniscience falls flat without the attendant sense of heartbreak that the best works of literature leave us with. A glimpse of the gutter would unnerve the best of us, but falling into it, fully, ought to devastate. Lapvona leaves the reader cold.

This is a novel that wants to—and succeeds—in alienating its readers, even the “good” ones. This is not because its characters are unsympathetic, or because of the farce it reveals itself to be, but because Moshfegh wields a crude power in her omniscience, at the expense of elegance. Lapvona’s narrator apparently knows everything, and the truth they deign to tell us is that everyone is delusional, stupid, and disgusting. There is admittedly something difficult about this truth, but the harder truth is that even delusional, stupid, and disgusting people are not devoid of their humanity.