Recent studies of medieval literature, language, and history have argued for a more connected understanding of preindustrial, pre-capitalist societies and post-industrial ones. While there has often been an emphasis on modern capitalism’s differences from medieval (European) feudalism, the two have plenty of similarities—the exertion of human power on natural landscapes, responses to natural disasters and economic fallout, and the use of labor in convoluted and exploitative ways. Despite obvious and important differences, medieval relationships to capital, or labor, or nature often overlap with our own in significant ways, including in an understanding of humankind as entwined with nature, but ultimately powerless to control it. In his Environmental History of Medieval Europe, Richard Hoffman demonstrates this with an anonymous medieval lyric:
A man may a while Nature beguile by doctrine and lore;
And yet at the end will Nature home wend, there she was before.
Lapvona, Otessa Moshfegh’s newest novel about a medieval town haunted by deceit, seems to be a product of a similar shift. It aims to present a feudal society grappling with its own relationship to extractive practices and subjugation of nature. Its larger goal is to make these practices resonate with late capitalist instances of the same: the ways the Global North’s relationship to nature has grown from twisted roots deep in European history.
Lapvona itself, the town the novel is set in, is a vibrant but unsettling place. Only a little of the book covers its existence before the drought begins hanging over the landscape: “It was all gray. The trees were bare. The roads were nearly white with arid dirt.”After this transition, strange things begin to happen in Lapvona: thirst-induced visions, cannibalism, flower beds springing from the cracked dry earth. As a character, Lapvona is more interesting than many of its inhabitants: it is a piece of traded land “wanted for its dirt”, it is an unstable home to hundreds of people, and it is the site of several natural disasters unfolding over the four seasons the book is divided into.
Moshfegh’s previous work is so good because it works from deep familiarity with its subject matter and. most particularly, its setting. New York in My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh’s magnum opus about a woman sleeping through her life, is not just accurate but sparkling; the several-block radius its narrator lives in comes alive through bodega trips and laundry runs done with sleep-crusted eyes and Xanax-induced dissociation. The town of Lapvona, though beautiful and terrible, is more of a dream than a place. It’s a container for the various supernatural events that occur; tracing its geography beyond the basics is impossible and beside the point.
One of the novel’s main plots follows shepherd’s son Marek’s move from Lapvona itself to the manor that sits above it. After his involvement in a gruesome crime, he is selected by the lord of the village to come and live with him as his son, and to take part in the rituals of gluttony and self-debasement that life in the manor carries with it. In the same way, Lapvona’s harshness comes through, so does the manor’s depraved excess, which Marek adjusts quickly to: “He couldn’t bear to revisit the old world of nature. He felt too ashamed, and too guilty, and too superior all at once.”
Soon, it’s revealed that those living in the manor are withholding water from the village; what seems like supernatural retribution to the villagers is old-fashioned human greed. This act of selfishness compounds toward several other disasters that all have human error at their center which more often than not goes unpunished or even rewarded. Like Moshfegh’s previous novels, Lapvona is often about people being horrible to each other with only a shadow of an understanding of why.
One of Moshfegh’s strengths as a writer is penning characters who engage in intense, often self-defeating introspection. Even those who are not especially empathetic or observant trace their own neuroses for the reader, outlining and foreshadowing their own downfalls. They are also frequently self-contradictory. The heroine of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is beautiful and young, but brutally disinterested in everyone and everything around her. She responds to conflict and affection with sleep. She is horrible to her friends and the few people who love her, has an inheritance she takes for granted, and is often intensely annoying. I would not want to talk to her at a party. However, she has a complete personality, unsavory though it might be. By virtue of her placement in 2000s America, she is whole.
But Lapvona is not about people; it is about types. For example, Lispeth, the serving girl, eats only cabbage and feels superior to those she serves through her self-effacement. Jude, Marek’s father, interfaces with the world through a mix of violence and care, paying careful attention to his lambs but also preying on young girls and physically abusing his son. Occasionally a character surprises you: Villiam, the manor’s grossly extravagant lord, seems stupidly entrenched in fantasy, but is sometimes capable of understanding the interiority of others when it affects his own motivations, worrying that his second marriage will throw his first wife’s brother into a rage, even as he celebrates not having to “cherish her in front of company”. Even when they do break out from their molds and demonstrate emotional intelligence, though, characters are rarely capable of complex emotion beyond the basics—guilt, suspicion, remorse for the impulsive violence they engage in. They simply don’t have the range.
There are factual errors here too—despite medieval people bearing children on a similar timeline to contemporary ones, one character is “too old and too frail” to bear a child at 28- but the population of Lapvona is made up of immoral priests and mysterious witches, among many non-specific peasants who never differentiate themselves, stands out as the most ungenerous misrepresentation. Despite this, it feels important to note that acknowledging the period as extractive, and the people as varying flavors of shitty, does admit an agency that medieval actors are often denied. Medieval people can be dirtbags, too.
If this novel has a thesis, it is that. Its characters are deceptive to themselves and each other, awful to those that try to love them, twisted by their own pain. And yet in the midst of this understanding of medieval people as capable of all the little cruelties and indignities that anyone would be, there’s a concurrent tendency towards highlighting their brutality, cynicism, and shortsightedness, qualities that are often linked to their superstitious ideas about the world. This pairing is what takes Lapvona’s characters from interestingly shitty to distractingly so. Rather than individuals behaving badly, Lapvona’s characters are a morass of pride, stupidity, and misdirected grief: their awfulness seems to be more a product of their world and its harshness than the result of individual people making flawed decisions.
In this way, Lapvona is sadly typical of many contemporary narratives about medieval society today. In using a medieval setting as the crux of a morality tale about the dangers of human greed, it sorts its characters into types that they only occasionally break out of. Their battles with jealousy and willful blindness are interesting for a time, but the novel’s ethos is too deterministic to really be revolutionary: these people are harsh and bad because their world is often harsh and bad. There is little room for us to be surprised by human decency, curiosity, or introspection. The few hopeful moments we get are soon eclipsed by the worse angels of nature, steeped in allusions to witchcraft, Catholicism, monastic gluttony, and innumerable other stereotypes about the medieval world, which are taken wholesale as personal attributes.
While it picks up on some preexisting and deeply interesting threads that connect premodern and post-industrial extraction, privatization of land, and human relationships to nature, Lapvona can’t stop itself from treating medieval existence as brutal and simple. It does not want to think about feudalism. It wants to use feudalism to talk about extractive capitalism. Metaphorizing the period into oblivion, rather than examining how a society convinced of humanity’s interconnection with nature could still subjugate and control that nature—a tension that was undeniably present in the medieval world—sells not just the narrative itself, but the connection Lapvona is trying to make between medieval and contemporary society, remarkably short.
Emily Price is an intern at Paste Magazine and a columnist at Unwinnable Magazine. She is also a PhD Candidate in literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Twitter @the_emilyap.