In 2016, Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel Eileen was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The novel was her attempt to produce a noir thriller about a psychologically unbalanced Massachusetts prison officer. It was a book deliberately calibrated to be a commercial success. Speaking to The Guardian shortly after her shortlisting, Moshfegh guilelessly admitted her mercenary motivation, revealing that she wrote the book with the help of a manual called The 90-Day Novel. Eileen, she said, ‘started out as a fuck-you joke’ at the expense of a literary culture in which ‘all these morons [make] millions of dollars’, at which point she paused to reflect that such straight-talking might have the effect of displeasing ‘the Booker people’. Indeed, she did not win.
Lapvona, her fourth novel, may be Moshfegh’s attempt to regain the trust of the Booker people, it being apparently untainted by any trace of aspiration for commercial success. The book is a satire on medieval political corruption as it plays out over the course of a year in the titular fiefdom of Lapvona, with a plot that sees Marek, a disfigured and servile bastard shepherd boy, become heir to the lordship. Moshfegh’s is a daring and unusual novel, not least because it is unusually daring to write a novel in which every one of the characters is not just dislikeable but actually revolting. The author seems to take an active delight in portraying inhumanity, putrefaction, filth and cruelty. Not one of the characters, major or minor, provides a locus of sympathy for the reader; the action of the novel revolves around a kind of moral void.
Marek, the story’s antihero, and the man he regards as his father, Jude, are sheep farmers in Lapvona. The settlement is a kind of fetid hell of premodern life, characterised by ‘the drab colors of people’s clothing, the smell of human waste, the ground trampled by oxen, young