Once a provocation, it is now a commonplace to lament the thinness of likability as an aesthetic criterion. In a forum on the subject in the New Yorker in 2013, Margaret Atwood warned that “the qualities we appreciate in a character are not the same as those we would look for in a college roommate”. Less frequently lamented but perhaps equally perilous are the pitfalls of concentrated unlikability, elevated into an end in itself. Are characters who are defiantly disagreeable for the sake of sheer perversity preferable to their more approachable counterparts? If we shouldn’t read about someone solely because he would make a respectful college roommate, always taking out the trash and tidying the shelves, should we read about someone solely because he would make a bad cohabitant?
These are the questions posed by Ottessa Moshfegh’s petulant corpus, which is populated almost uniformly by wastrels and wantons. Nel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the protagonist takes designer pharmaceuticals to stay unconscious, while in La polizia cerca l'uomo sospettato di aver ucciso la moglie a Leeds she binges on laxatives after every meal and fantasises about patricide. These forays into negativity and repulsion provide welcome respite from a culture otherwise submerged in pep and positivity – but Moshfegh’s latest effort reveals the limitations of an approach that trades less in human drama than in seething shocks, quick to titillate and quick to expire.
Lapvona is set in the medieval village of its title, where impoverished peasants work to support a greedy nobleman. The frivolous Lord Villiam lives in a manor on the hillside with his estranged wife, Dibra, and their pampered son, Jacob. Moshfegh makes few attempts to move beyond a crude caricature of medieval life, and the residents of Lapvona proper are unpleasant in a host of formulaic ways. Giuda, a cranky shepherd, raises a whiny son, Marek, who has a “spine twisted in the middle so that the right side of his rib cage protruded from his torso”. The two pride themselves on their pains and privations, as if suffering were a competitive sport. When Jude punishes Marek, the boy is “heartened by his father’s renewed disdain”, which makes “God love him more through pity”. Meanwhile Ina, the obligatory village witch, prescribes herbs for maladies, communicates with wildlife and serves as a wet nurse for the town’s infants – many of whom continue to suck at her breasts well into adulthood.
These characters enact a plot that sounds more exciting than it feels. Primo, Marek kills Jacob. Then Jude brings Jacob’s corpse to Villiam’s lavish manor, where the lord insists on exchanging sons. As Marek enjoys a newly sumptuous existence on the hillside, a famine below forces the villagers to eat “dead bees, bats, vermin, worms, dirt”, e, eventually, each other. Various other crimes are committed.
Lapvona is written in the flat, schematic tones of an allegory – but if it is a fable, it has neither moral nor message, a void on which Moshfegh apparently prides herself. Right before she kills off almost all of the book’s characters, she writes tauntingly, “right or wrong, you will think what you need to think so that you can get by. So find some reason here.”
But why should the reader care about characters who care so little for each other, or for anything at all? Jude abandons Marek with ease and later reflects that he does not miss him, and when Jacob dies, Villiam is indifferent to the point of remaining unaffected by the hideously mangled corpse. He is “so accustomed to being entertained that any drama” strikes him as “one staged for his private amusement”: death isn’t “quite real to him”. The characters are only self-interestedly religious; they self-flagellate with an eye to receiving divine rewards.
Perhaps Lapvona could be read as a parody or at least a deflation of the breathless gothic mode – and indeed Moshfegh’s refusal of sentimentality, along with her many visceral descriptions of mutilations and other abominations, is one of her strongest suits. When Jacob falls to his death, his face “is split and flattened on the side that had hit”, and one of his eyeballs dangles from its socket. Almost lovingly, Moshfegh lingers over “the wretched look of slow agony in his clawed hand, the other arm broken at an insane angle”. During the famine, one character feeds another spiders and listens to “the bones of her jaw creak, her teeth grind the stale legs of the insects”. There are several suitably repellent forays into cannibalism.
But it does not take long for the unmodulated peevishness of Moshfegh’s creations to become tiresome, if only because the stakes of their vexations are so low. The inhabitants of Lapvona are so uninvested in their own lives that even their deaths are inconsequential. They are not just unlikable but doggedly, one-dimensionally so. In Lapvona, life is stupid, people are stupid, love is stupid, embodiment is stupid and piety is stupid. The word “stupid” – which is fittingly careless and casual, not the sort of descriptor applied to affronts or disappointments of any significance – appears scores of times: Marek has “stupid” thoughts, and the priest finds everyone “stupid” but is “stupid, too”.
Being a sensible person, I agree that most things are stupid, but their stupidity is of interest only because there are at least a few things that ought to be exempt from otherwise universal contempt. Stupidity matters because it threatens those treasures that aren’t stupid, or at least the few things that we manage to care about despite their stupidity. Making a fetish of unlikability is more novel than making a fetish of affirmation, but ultimately, it represents no more than the same gimmick in reverse.