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Culture Edinburgh International Book Festival Literature

EIBF 2022: Ottessa Moshfegh, ‘Power, Cruelty and Savage Faith’

You never want to hear an artist discuss the intricacies of their process too much: an overabundance of detail will detract from the intrigue of the piece and remove some of the capacity the audience has to attach their own views to the work. There is an element of this idea captured in the phrase ‘never meet your heroes’: the idea that those whose outputs you idolise will always, inevitably, fall short of some mark you have placed for them upon some encounter between you; the magician revealing their secrets simply makes the magic of it all dissipate into thin air.

This isn’t always the case, however, as Ottessa Moshfegh proved at the Edinburgh International Book Festival discussing her latest novel Lapvona: A Novel (2022), engaging in a conversation with Glaswegian author Heather Parry, and being every bit as acerbic, witty and charming as one would ever have hoped. 

With a book such as Lapvona, some explanation is in a way required from Moshfegh, namely due to the fact that this work is, on the surface, incredibly removed from the rest of her canon: placing the characters in a generically mediaeval setting and utilising a third person perspective to give us a view of their thoughts. Both of these are aberrations from her previous stylistic choices. 

Moshfegh discussed how the novel’s genesis was the concept of a child who inadvertently/advertently causes the death of another boy, which then leads to the boy’s father taking in the child as a replacement son. This is described in the opening ‘season’ of the novel, Spring, which is followed by a complete, year-long cycle in a village, Lapvona, somewhere unspecified during a violent, primitive, feudal era. The characters themselves, however, think and act as if they were from a contemporary world. The lord Villiam pays bandits to attack the village after the Priest Barnabus has told him of dissent amongst his people, a tactic that wouldn’t be out of place coming from a totalitarian dictator in a dystopian sci-fi novel. 

The choice to characterise the residents of Lapvonawas made in order to give credit to those who lived through such times: advocating for their ability to think and act just as we do, in no way lesser beings than ourselves. Of course, there are still elements of the narrative and characters within it that are very much of a different time, like the village wet nurse Ina who is believed to be possibly hundreds of years old, able to translate birdsong and at times seen to engage in cannibalism to give herself brief lapses in her blindness that she acquired during a plague. 

The central thrust of the story, however, is father and son Jude and Marek, Marek being a quintessential Moshfegh character, despite his unique disfigurements and contextual quirks, namely due to the fact that he is an outsider, the kind of individual that Moshfegh seems to revel in presenting to us. Marek is a masochist when it comes to taking beatings from his father, his faith manifesting itself via lashings received when he acts up. Elsewhere, he has seen suckling on the dried-up teat of Ina, or rubbing a grape between his arse cheeks and tossing it to a servant girl. What Moshfegh says about these strange, disturbing scenes is that they are meant to illustrate absurd complexity, perhaps tapping into a vein of the pandemic and its effects, for at the end of the day, despite the intricate layers of power as manifested in the hierarchy of Lapvona, every character is human and capable of effusing strange, disgusting actions, no matter how much they may try and deny it. 

Moshfegh outright contextualises Lapvona as a pandemic novel: in how a world-altering crisis was able to shift her view from that of the myopic and insular to more of a global one, wherein a multitude of perspectives are considered equal due to their intricate link towards each other. 

Lapvona represents Moshfegh allowing herself to move away from the individualised novel, which deals in the micro examination of one or two people being placed into a scenario or relationship, and instead tackles the grand issue of spirituality in the world, flirting with the idea of faith as being both a subjective and objective truth, even suggesting that the two may ultimately fulfil the same end and fish-hook back towards each other. 

The usage of third person narrative, indicative of this macro-perspective, whilst giving us equal measures of consideration for many characters we may not necessarily have chosen to follow, also adds another element in what it doesn’t tell us: for by not letting us directly inside the heads of the villagers, only allowing us to perch on their shoulders, we are constantly uneasy about how they may act next. In the past Moshfegh has leaned heavily on characters that may seem to many as unhinged, but as she said herself: ‘unhinged is interesting, who is hinged? Whatever’. This neatly sums up Moshfegh’s artistry on the whole: her ability to deftly walk the tightrope of scintillatingly powerful ideas whilst also maintaining a detached demeanour that recognises the truth of the human condition. 

Heather Parry must get a special mention here for enticing Moshfegh into such a riveting account of her work, her process, and her own life, that only seeks to brighten her in the estimation of those who already enjoy her, and undoubtedly intrigue those who are sadly as of yet uneducated in her prowess.

Image ‘Ottessa Moshfegh 2020’ by kellywritershouse is licensed under CC BY 2.0