The author Ottessa Moshfegh is getting some attention these days, and with good reason. Currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Moshfegh’s short stories have won her the Paris Review’s Plimpton Discovery Prize and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Her first book, McGlue, a historical novel selected by judge Rivka Galchen for the Fence Modern Prize in Prose, is a dark, psychological whirlpool, drowning the reader in the tragic, troubled life and mind of its title character, McGlue.
Set in the middle of the nineteenth century, the book is told in first person from the perspective of McGlue, and begins with him waking up in the hold of a ship. He has been accused of murdering his best friend, Johnson, but still drunk and suffering from a head injury, McGlue cannot remember anything about the events leading up to this moment, and dismisses them for what he considers to be a more pressing issue: his next drink. Tension is built on this plot point: Did McGlue kill Johnson, or didn’t he? And, more importantly, why would he have wanted to kill his best friend? Only McGlue can answer that question, but he is in no condition to do so, sometimes even doubting the claim that Johnson is dead.
As the narrative moves from the ship to jail and McGlue’s impending trial, McGlue transitions from inebriation to sobriety. With this comes greater clarity in both McGlue’s memory and Moshfegh’s prose, which starts with jumbled, hallucinatory experiences (McGlue frequently sees Johnson in the hold and later in his jail cell), and transitions to subtle revelations of the intimacy McGlue and Johnson shared and the tragedies (including the death of a beloved brother) that have led McGlue to become the person he is.
Moshfegh’s book is slight (a mere 118 pages), but its scope is vast. The details of the time period—the fish pies and whiskey jugs, the oil lamps and the newspapers that list dry goods (“doeskins, vestings, all wool tweeds. Colored cambrics, printed cashmeres and fancy Earlston ginghams. Velvets.”)—create an authenticity of place and time the reader never doubts. In addition, Moshfegh convincingly foreshadows historical events, including the Civil War; as when perusing a newspaper McGlue notes: “The president says not to treat men like mules. I like that.” But McGlue’s voice—with its “fag” and “fuck all” and the author’s punchy, succinct style—is strikingly contemporary. The narrative begins:
I wake up.
My shirtfront is stiff and bibbed brown. I take it be dried blood and I’m a dead man.
But as the story unfolds, McGlue lingers a bit on his memories, becoming more reflective, and the sentences and passages lengthen.
From an early age McGlue cultivates a terrifying hooliganism, preferring to beat up old men and torture dogs than learn anything like the “tisket-and-tasket nonsense” at school, the arithmetic he “had no mind for.” He discovers alcohol early, stealing a bottle from some men on the street, and never turns back. He spends most of his time in a liquored haze, smelly, dirty and foulmouthed, homophobic and rebellious, offending just about anyone who comes across his path, willing to do just about anything for a drink. Johnson, who the reader understands only from McGlue’s fragments of memory, is opposite in every way. He is handsome, rich, and charming; when he appears in public, he draws crowds: “Children and women came and yelled and pointed. That was Johnson. Smiling and waving and leading the way.” He is also McGlue’s hero, saving him from freezing to death one night when he finds McGlue by the side of the road outside of New Haven, Connecticut, whisking him off on his horse. Johnson became McGlue’s caretaker, supplying him with money, food, and, most importantly, drink. It is because of Johnson that McGlue becomes a sailor, and they travel together around the world.
So what is it that McGlue offers Johnson in return? That is the question that recurs throughout the narrative, the question that haunts an otherwise breathtaking read. Johnson used to tell McGlue, “You’ve helped me,” and McGlue understood what he meant: “Fuck the world and go on, that was what I taught him.” But this lesson is only a source of regret and sorrow in the end, this nihilistic vision of life being perhaps what has resulted in the end of Johnson’s. Johnson was “nice” McGlue tells us, and when he drank “he went on about expensive things—futures, twinkling lights, music, some vision, some idea.” In other words, Johnson had dreams (unlike McGlue), though the subtext of the narrative suggests there was perhaps something thwarting them, something he couldn’t overcome. Moshfegh hints at a couple of possibilities—Johnson’s father, for one (who Johnson says he’d like to kill); Johnson’s sexual confusion and the self-hatred it inspires, for another. For this reason, Johnson liked McGlue. As McGlue explained: “I put him in a class of dirty animals.” In a sense, by embracing McGlue, Johnson embraces his own dark, tortured, nihilistic side, believing it an escape from the pain he carries. Johnson says that when he met McGlue “his heart beat a little louder.” Maybe this was all that Johnson needed to love McGlue, but it’s a question the book, in the end, leaves unanswered.
McGlue is, in a sense, a love story, one of friendship and perhaps something more. It is also a tragedy. Like all great tragic figures, McGlue’s self-awareness, particularly about his own flaws, arrives too late, after the damage has been done. Moshfegh deftly reveals McGlue’s humanity and the profound sadness and regret he carries inside him as a result of his many failings. It is this regret that ultimately redeems him so that a reader is, in the end, able to sympathize with him and lament his fate.
About the Reviewer
Lenore Myka is the author of King of the Gypsies: Stories, winner of the 2014 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, which will be published by BkMk Press in Fall 2015. Her fiction has been selected as distinguished by Best American Short Stories and Best American Non-Required Reading. Her award-winning work has appeared in New England Review, Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, and Massachusetts Review, among others. Learn more about Lenore at www.lenoremyka.com.