Hard Feelings

‘Our main product’ insists the website of the Medieval Torture Museum, the largest of its kind in the United States, ‘is emotion’. With sites in Chicago, St Augustine (Florida) and a third branch opening this summer on Hollywood Boulevard, the private collection of sadistic historic instruments and replicas aims to surpass its Czech inspiration by abolishing glass cases for garottes, thumb screws and Spanish boots, immersing the visitor in an interactive experience of Old-World suffering, allowing her to inhabit roles of both victim and executioner. In Europe, dusty displays of artefacts might suffice, but in America, it’s important to feel something.

When the LA branch opens its doors, Ottessa Moshfegh will, traffic depending, find herself only twenty or so minutes away. With her husband, the writer Luke Goebel, she lives in Pasadena, in a house reassembled from the ruins of an earthquake. Designed and built by the artist Herman Koller over a fifteen-year period from 1928, Casa de Pájaros is old for California. The stones of the house were salvaged from the San Juan Capistrano Mission, the bell that hangs there from the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, both late-eighteenth century Spanish colonial structures levelled by the tremor that hit Long Beach in 1933, killing 120 people. The couple moved in just before lockdown, and Moshfegh has described how the age of the materials along with the retreat from modern life enforced by pandemic isolation brought the deep time of the European Middle Ages to mind. When news broke last year that Moshfegh, pigeon-holed as the laureate of millennial ‘sad girls’, had turned to historical fiction it was greeted with some apprehension. Such reports turn out, however, to have been a misunderstanding – Lapvona, despite its putative late-fourteenth-century setting and list of Balkan-ish place and character names, does not stray from the themes of her work to date. Reacting, perhaps, to the curse of pseudo-relevance which made her satire of contemporary feminine abjection and narcissism, My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), into a lockdown parable, Moshfegh, like the Medieval Torture Museum, has simply diversified her portfolio of locations. The novel is the latest result of a decade-long obsession with, in the words of one Lapvonian, ‘hard feelings’.

Born in Boston, the middle child of an Iranian father and Croatian mother, both of whom were professional classical musicians, Moshfegh, 41, was initially set to follow in the family trade. In her adolescence, an oversubscribed music summer school and an empty spot on a creative writing course altered her path without affecting her artistic methodology. If Moshfegh stands out from many of her contemporaries in the nebulous marketing category of ‘women’s literary fiction’ it is not for her perversity, or unashamed interest in lapses of bodily etiquette, but because of her commitment to the craft of narrative. Every sentence appears the product of rehearsal, every plot paced as if by metronome. In a now-infamous Guardian interview, she described having written her breakout success Eileen (2016) following the prompts laid out in Alan Watt’s guide The 90-day Novel. Moshfegh’s comments, along with her declared ambitions for fame and fortune, were taken to reflect a hustling fraudulence, a lack of respect for the muses and the divinity of literary inspiration. In fact, Moshfegh’s approach – which has produced a series of delicately hinged psychological thrillers and mysteries – relies on treating inspiration as work; in interviews she describes a hermetic tendency that, when combined with a stoic daily writing practice, yields novels that accelerate almost imperceptibly, pushing their protagonists across the state lines of ordinary misery and into the lawless borderlands of pathological chaos. In the introduction to Week One of his course Watt writes, ‘if we allow our subconscious some time to play, our characters tend to surprise us.’

The risk of such an approach is that the result becomes formulaic. While the plots and settings of most of her fiction cluster around a set of easily identifiable themes (wipe-clean institutional buildings, temporary and unproductive employment, embittered social isolation – for her characters the challenge is not to change the world, but to flee it), Moshfegh has developed a line in idiosyncratic narrative voice that elevates her stories beyond the conventions of their genres. In Death In Her Hands (2020) the protagonist and narrator Vesta, discovering her own capabilities for the first time in the aftermath of a controlling and miserable marriage, anxiously probes the interior of her ‘mindspace’, the kind of jarring word choice that sets Moshfegh’s anti-heroes just west of centre within the frames they inhabit (on the New Yorker fiction podcast in 2018, she described a similar move by Sheila Heti who writes, in her story ‘My Life Is a Joke’, that someone conceived ‘using fertility’. ‘Why did she do that?’, Moshfegh puzzles admiringly).

The Melvillian novella McGlue (2014), her debut, recounts an elongated dark night of the soul of a nineteenth-century Massachusetts sailor who may have killed his best friend and lover during an alcoholic blackout in Zanzibar. Ostensibly historical fiction, McGlue shows her revelling not in the details of 1800s Salem maritime life but rather in the disorganising vessel of a fraying mind; when the ship’s captain asks McGlue for his thoughts a litany of exotic luxuries ensues – goods to be smuggled in the gash in his head – that runs over a page and a half: ‘What I have been thinking, captain, is what is exempt from import tax in one country is what I’d like to stick through the crack in my skull to fill it: hay, oranges, lemons, pineapples, cocoa nuts, grapes, green fruit and vegetables of every variety and linseed oil cake.’ Repeatedly in her fiction, everyday objects become tests for the limits of the body, which must be stuffed, ruptured and purged as a proof of existence.

Thanks to the commercial success of My Year of Rest and Relaxation – whose narrator, a young, rich, beautiful Manhattanite, decides to take a pharmacologically-fuelled sabbatical from life on the eve of 9/11 – Moshfegh is often touted as a writer of young womanhood. In fact, over the course of her writing she has regularly adopted the subject position of the elderly and middle aged: the narrator of Eileen is in her mid-70s, Vesta a similar age, the most memorable protagonists of her short fiction (‘Disgust’, ‘No Place for Good People’, ‘The Beach Boy’) range from their late forties to sixties. Old age, more evidently than youth, allows her characters to physically unclench – the younger ones rely heavily on laxatives – and to release themselves of the weighty expectations of success, beauty, even happiness. These characters, the women especially, have quit the rat race of social recognition, weaponize their invisibility and delight in muddling the rationality of the contemporary mundane. When Vesta visits the public library, hunting a missing body, she Asks Jeeves how to solve a murder; the search engine directs her to instructions on how to write a murder mystery and for the rest of the book dying and writing are synchronous acts, best performed by those who’ve seen it all.

The two regions of America in which Moshfegh has lived also comprise the locations of her fiction: the northeast shoulder of the USA (Eileen, McGlue, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Death In Her Hands) and its southwest hip (the bulk of the short story collection Homesick for Another World). Lapvona, her sixth book and fifth novel, belongs to the latter, offering a Hollywood view of feudal Europe. Closer to Duloc than Montaillou, the medieval world of the novel is a costume not a thesis for Moshfegh, distanced enough from the obfuscatory familiarity of the contemporary to allow her to focus on what she really cares about: pain. It is also the first of her novels written in the third person. No longer propelled by the missteps of her trademark unreliable narrator, in the absence of a protagonist’s voice one imagines instead an omniscient creator. The effect is to redirect attention to the author, who one now sees as crouched with a magnifying glass over the sandbox world she has constructed, alternately illuminating and scorching the dramatis personae. The novel switches episodically between characters – a technique unknown in her earlier fiction in which plot equals protagonist, and a development surely not unrelated to her recent work as a screenwriter – the narrative unfurling in linear time across five consecutive seasons.

Lapvona charts the unlikely rise of Marek, a shepherd boy afflicted with scoliosis (from which Moshfegh herself has suffered since childhood), ‘from lowly lamb herder’s son to the lord of Lapvona’. After manslaughtering the Lord’s preening heir (who, in a characteristically Moshfeghian detail is brought down by vanity: his sleek crimson and blue leather boots causing him to slip on craggy rocks after Marek has lured him high to hunt for gulls), Marek is adopted by the fey and febrile Villiam, who substitutes him for his dead son in the soiled games of the court. While coprophagia reigns in the castle, in the village below the peasants turn to cannibalism in the wake of a drought exacerbated by the maintenance of Villiam’s ornamental lakes. Life is hardly worth hanging on to in the village of Lapvona, characters lie down beside dried out riverbeds and hope for death or slip away from a residue of poisoned claret dried on their lips, ‘so fragile was she, so willing to leave this stupid life behind.’ Those who survive seem to know that they shouldn’t have, that the good are always the second to go, hot on the heels of the innocent.

Marek’s ascension to nobility leads him back to the mother who abandoned him after failing to abort him, and the novel concludes with an act which could be motivated by revenge but feels more like the inevitable fulfilment of the book’s ceaselessly cruel logic. Elderly characters are, once more, an exception to the rule of brute stupidity that governs Moshfegh’s fiction; Ina, a wild woman, wet nurse and witch, survives plagues, raids and floods to act as a spiritual conscience for the village, advocating a love for Christ in nature not the Church. ‘You can’t believe the difference in my sleep, now that I know what time is to me, and not what it meant to the church’, Grigor, another aged survivor (and EP Thompson avant la lettre) tells her, before she opens his heart to the real God, to be found ‘in the harmonious song of spring’.  

The scaffolding of Lapvona is characteristically robust: resolutions are achieved, arcs conclude with the ironic flourishes that are the trademarks of Moshfegh’s character development, but the ultimate effect is overburdensome, the pillars and poles of the neatly paced plot begin to bow under the weight of all the misery they must support. The final effect is akin to that of having feasted on a fridge full of rotten food, where even the ice water reeks of canned fish. For the digestor of this fiction as well as its creator the same maxim holds: just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. Thematically, Lapvona hardly exceeds the carnivals of bad taste in Moshfegh’s other works – why, then, does it feel so oversaturated with suffering? Here Moshfegh’s shift to the third person explains more than her deployment of a studio feudalism. Lapvona is the first of Moshfegh’s works to take a location as its subject, not a character. Where, in her other fiction, Moshfegh offers up similar grotesqueries, the experiences are channelled through a single perspective, forming the basis of a psychological profile. Even when, plausibly, that single character is a synecdoche for the baseness of humans en masse, the fact remains that our worst moments are ours alone, our perversions symptomatic but ultimately unique. In the populous world of Lapvona there is no limit to the numbers upon which anguish can be visited, and, without the confines of a first person perspective, no obsessional introspection to justify the foulness. At her best, Moshfegh is able to make an unhinged flight from reality seem the only logical move, but in Lapvona the narrative, determined by place not character, has nowhere to go.

Read on: Christopher Middleton, ‘The Sexual Division of Labour in Feudal England’, NLR I/113-134.