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Life in the Middle Ages is more gross than engrossing in this ruthless novel

<em>Lapvona</em>, by Ottessa Moshfegh
Penguin Random House
Lapvona, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Once upon a time, popular culture used to embrace charming or comic fantasies about the Middle Ages. From Camelot to Monty Python, Disney castles to Medieval Times dinner theater, we dreamt of the Middle Ages as a time of knights in shining armor and grateful peasantry, marred only by occasional outbreaks of the plague.

I exaggerate, but it does seem that there's been a turning away from these Merrie Olde England-type images to rougher stuff, as embodied by the HBO series, Game of Thrones. Now, a new contender enters the Feudal Tournament of the Most Foul. Ottessa Moshfegh's just-published novel, Lapvona, serves up plenty of sadism and stink, cannibalism and self-flagellation. For those of us with limited tolerance for this stuff, the fact that Moshfegh is such a vivid and inventive writer only makes matters worse.

Moshfegh has written about off-putting subjects before. Her signature heroines are tamped-down loners who expect little from life and receive less. That's especially true of the heroine of My Year of Rest and Relaxation, where a depressed young woman achieves emotional numbness by drugging herself into marathon sleep sessions. Few writers could pull off such a drowsy premise, but Moshfegh's interior story was engrossing, as opposed to gross, which is what Lapvona largely is.

The plot follows the life of a 13-year-old boy named Marek who lives with his cruel shepherd father, Jude, in the feudal village of Lapvona. Marek's spine was "twisted in the middle" and his head "was also misshapen"; his "bright red hair ... had never once been brushed or cut." Since his mother vanished shortly after his birth, unloved Marek was nursed by the blind village witch, whose ancient breasts have miraculously — and graphically — nursed almost all the villagers.

Marek is a familiar figure — the classic innocent — but in the world of this novel, innocence bleeds into ruthlessness. One day, in a minor fit of irritation, Marek hurls a rock at the young son of the local feudal lord, who topples off a cliff. The lord, Villiam, who's depraved and bored, demands that Marek's father, Jude, give him Marek as reparation for the death of his son. Though it hardly seems possible, things go downhill once Marek enters the castle.

While Villiam and Marek amuse themselves by playing nasty games with grapes in the castle, the village below endures drought and starvation. Here's a scene, one of the very few I can quote from this novel, where a starving Jude visits the village witch, whose name is Ina, hoping for, um, some sustenance:

Jude stepped into the dark of her cabin and looked around. ... There were teeth marks on the wooden bedframe. Tiny fragments of bones were littered on the floor — the bones of birds, Jude thought. ... Jude overturned a bucket, shook out the dead spiders, collected them into his thin palm, and approached the bed.

'Here, Ina,' he said and fed the little spiders into her mouth — a cavern of white bloodless flesh — one by one. She chewed. Jude sat and listened to the bones of her jaw creak, her teeth grind the stale legs of the insects, her dry tongue scrape the roof of her mouth.

Those spiders are appealing compared to what's next on the menu.

Lapvona is the kind of novel that can make a critic like me sound like a scold; a knock-off of the Victorian sage Matthew Arnold, who demanded "sweetness and light" in literature. But there is no enlightenment in these pages, and the only "beauty" to be found is in the vividness of Moshfegh's language and the cleverness of her plot, which is an elaborate snicker at the gullibility of anyone who thinks ancestry can be reliably traced through birth records.

If that's enough for you, have at it! But, as the late medieval philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously said, life is "nasty, brutish and short" — and, for me, the life depicted in Lapvona couldn't be short enough.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.