Stupid Prayer: On God and Solitude in Ottessa Moshfegh's Lapvona
It is embarrassing to believe in something. That’s the operating philosophy of high school, online culture, and modern dating. More shameful still is belief in something invisible, potentially unreal, something like goodness or grace or God. I was asked recently if I believed in God. It was someone I barely knew, in the beer aisle of HEB, on a Friday night. More than shocked, I was embarrassed that I could not give a good answer either way. “No” seemed obvious, but also incomplete. As a child, I believed in a cartoon God. As a teenager, I believed in nothing. Now, I find myself interested again in a version of God.
Not the Sunday School version of God, but a God more like the one in Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest novel Lapvona (Penguin Press, 2021). In the novel, God is everywhere, present in both the overseer and the overseen. “Didn’t they know that the land was God itself, the sun and moon and rain, that it was all God?” Moshfegh writes. “The priest had nothing to do with it.” Elsewhere, Moshfegh describes eating and art-making as ways to commune with God. The God of this novel is infinite, inside everything, and yet its absence can be felt on every page. This diffuse and elusive God requires a different kind of prayer, one that is collective and connecting, and so, much of the small action of the novel—the hand-holding, cloud-watching, and land-working—carries the weight of prayer.
The land in question is Lapvona, a small medieval fiefdom. The novel follows a year in the life of this villagethrough a family whose lineage has been perverted by violence, famine, and misunderstanding. Marek, a meek and motherless shepherd boy, lives with his gruff father Jude. Marek’s mother is gone. In her place is Ina, a partially blind, magical wet nurse who has nursed all the babies in the village. Some boys in the village, including Marek, come to her far beyond their infancy to lay in bed and nurse at her breast.
One of Moshfegh’s great skills as a writer is creating characters whose actions are informed by the limitations and powers of their bodies. Everyone in Lapvona has a body that hurts and stinks and sweats and breaks down, so prayer becomes corporal. Ina loses her eyesight after becoming the sole survivor of a plague. After isolating in the woods for several years, her breasts miraculously begin to leak sight-giving milk. In midlife, she returns to the village and is welcomed as its wet nurse. When Marek comes to suck at Ina’s breast, which could easily be played for twisted comedy, the moment holds the quiet, meditative air of prayer. The traditional image of prayer, two hands belonging to the same body pressed together, is played with throughout the novel. Here, prayer does not happen solely between oneself and God, but rather between oneself and others; Hand to hand becomes hand to earth, or lips to head, or mouth to breast.
The way you pray has a lot to do with what you believe God is. At my Grandparents' house we would pray before eating, holding hands and saying thanks together in one long voice: Bless us Oh Lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen. I can still do it in one breath. When I said those lines, it wasn’t to God, not even to the cartoon God of my imagination; I said them to my grandparents because it mattered to them.
Still, when I pass an eighteen-wheeler on a two lane highway, I’ll say out loud, Please, God. My prayer only happens like that, in moments when I’ve made a mistake, when I need more time, when I think I’m going to die. These prayers are selfish and built on borrowed language: Forgive me, wait for me, let me live.
Prayer is all over Lapvona, but the church is not. The nature of God is constantly reevaluated throughout. When the village is plagued by drought or attacked by bandits, the characters mull over the usual theodicy: It’s God’s will. And it may be tempting to ask an audience to laugh at people who, not unlike us, watch the world around them destroyed and see it as the will of the divine. Instead, the futility of their prayers and their ravenous desire to experience God is given the gentle hand of respect.
The novel takes it’s epigraph—“I feel stupid when I pray”—from Demi Lovato’s 2020 song “Anyone.” The song, like most prayer in the novel, is pleading. Its placement creates tension with our expectations. There’s an easy humor in the juxtaposition between medieval peasants and Disney Channel stars, but the line also provides a nice window into the novel that follows. The characters of Lapvona are filled with shame. Their world is unrelenting and unforgiving. It is impossible to be simultaneously good in the eyes of God, the church, and their neighbors, and still do what they need to stay alive. Even prayer, their one avenue for escape, is itself a shameful act because it is so earnest and so often in vain.
In that way, prayer feels in line with the rituals Moshfegh’s characters have sought out in her earlier work. Eileen, in Moshfegh’s novel of the same name, compulsively downs laxatives to fill and clear her bowels. The protagonist of My Year of Rest and Relaxation takes sleeping pills on a meticulous quest for unconsciousness. These rituals, much like the prayer in Lapvona, feel like acts of survival. They are misguided and self-destructive, but for the characters they are earnest attempts to stay alive. In Lapvona, the line between life and death feels especially precarious, and rather than a method of earthly survival, prayer feels like insurance for a better life in the beyond. “What good was a life of struggle with no guarantee of heaven?” Jude wonders. It’s a good question for characters who embody their prayer and penance.
This kind of prayer fits into a familiar equation: praying gets you into heaven. For twelve years of my life, I prayed every day. It’s hard to assert now whether I did this because I thought it was going to get me into heaven. In one sense, it was something I did because someone else told me to. It was a disembodied and solitary act, something that happened only in the isolation of my mind. They were like the prayers made by Judy Blume’s young protagonist in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret: silent, made to the ceiling in my childhood bedroom. Dear God, can you hear me, I want everyone to like me, I want to be beautiful, I want things to be easier, I want to feel less alone.
Prayer is often motivated by an impulse to be alone with the divine. In Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Margaret asks God one night “Why God? Why do I only feel you when I’m alone?” In his song “To Be Alone With You,” Sufjan Stevens similarly lists the things he’d do—swim across Lake Michigan, sell his shoes—to be alone with God. In Lapvona, Jude walks the summer fields to feel God’s hand touch his cheek in the sunlight. Perhaps that has something to do with performance and authenticity, but perhaps too it has something to do with that stupid feeling Demi Lovato identified. In the song, Lovato has exhausted all available channels for communication, there seems to be no one on the other end, and yet the need to be heard isn’t gone.
It’s impossible to be alone, and horrible to be seen. Moshfegh’s characters have found a way to stave off solitude by diffusing God through the world: the sun, the air, the land, each other. There's a moment late in the novel in which Clod, the court sketch artist, thinks: “God was not alive. God was life itself. And life was invisible. This was why Clod felt he had to make art, to give proof of life.” It is not revolutionary to say that art making is like prayer, but it is unexpected, in a novel full of murder and rape and excriment, to get such an assertion. Writing is like this too, an attempt, although mediated, to commune with an unknown other. Despite the embarrassment, some artifact must be made that says: I was here.
Distilled and disintegrated into everything, Moshfegh paints a portrait of God that is expansive and hopeful. This stance is unexpected from a wry writer like Moshfegh. In my own words it sounds more like Sunday School, but I am enamored by the kind of God Lapvona creates. If God is everywhere, solitude loses its loneliness. Art is worship, and care for others can be a kind of prayer.
Madeleine Gaudin is a writer, editor and educator originally from Austin, Texas. She is a current MFA candidate at the University of Houston and an Inprint Brown Fellow. She also serves as an Assistant Fiction Editor for Gulf Coast.