Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh (2022)
In a medieval farming town called Lapvona, a deformed boy named Marek lives in poverty with his religiously abusive shepherd father. Meanwhile, the ridiculously vain lord Villiam lives high on the hill in opulence and controls the town with violence, deprivation, and religion.
There is no love in this book that goes uncorrupted. No hope that goes un-crushed. And only tattered shreds of grace. It is brutal beyond the point of honesty.
This novel only feels true in the worst moments of life, when no one loves you, the whole world is out to get you, and nothing really matters. It is so bleak it feels like a parody more than a mirror. In that way it is comforting. The author captures that horrible feeling and puts it in a little snowglobe for us to look at, revealing how ridiculous it actually is.
One of the most intriguing side effects of this detachment is that despite the close 3rd person perspective, the narrator will occasionally step back and comment directly on the actions of the characters. Usually to call them stupid. This reminds us that we are just reading a book, removes us from the characters, and invites us to join the narrator in judging them.
That being said, the novel does have some honest things to say. Mostly about the corruption of religion. How people bend their spiritual ideals to justify their actions or demonize others. How those in power exploit these vague spiritual rules to maintain violent control of those beneath them. And how, even as corrupted as it may be, complete detachment from this spiritual system leaves a void that is hard to fill.
This feels like an honest point, but I wonder if the novel's cynical devotion to brutality undermines any genuine messaging. We're invited to make light of this bleakness, but at the same time it seems like there is some real truth in there. So, is this gritty realism, or a cannibal corpse song? Is the author making a genuine point, or just playing around with blood? Are we supposed to cynically detach from the narrative, or are we supposed to feel for these characters and their plight?
This novel gives no answer, except maybe "both?"
In those terrible moments when the whole world is grey and no one cares and everyone is dying inside and out, it feels like nothing can bring you joy. You spend the day sitting around the house feeling sorry for yourself and lashing out at the people around you. It is dramatic and bleak and everything good turns bad.
Then you wake up the next day feeling better. A weight is lifted, and you look back at that vicious sad sack moping around the house and you laugh at how silly he was. So dramatic! So mean! So delusional! You might laugh at him and deride him, to demonstrate how completely removed you are from that person. But deep down you know that that person was you, is still you, and you laugh at him in order to push down the sneaking suspicion that maybe he was right all along.