Ottessa Moshfegh, McGlue, Fence Books, 2014
Reviewed by JoAnna Novak
"'I'm never done, Johnson,' I tell him. 'It's what I always need, one more.'"
"Where was the woman who said she'd come."
1. Procrastinating: six weeks now—I read, reread, reread, reread. Wish myself away.
2. "It's a review," says my husband. "What's so difficult about that? The purpose is to inform the reader about the book."
3. Easy: Plimpton-Prize winner, Stegner Fellow, and NEA-grant recipient, Ottessa Moshfegh's debut novel, McGlue, is a story of addiction, self-destruction, and love in the nineteenth-century, the tale of a drunken sailor, struggling to come confront the fact that he has murdered his companion/savior/would-be beau, Johnson.
4. Okay. Done?
1. McGlue opens with the eponymous narrator/protagonist waking up onboard the ship of which he is a crewmember. The captain accuses him of murdering Johnson, a fellow sailor and, as the reader learns, McGlue's closest friend. But McGlue refuses to believe what he hears. Perhaps he doesn't hear it. He is, to put it mildly, not in good sorts and "too drunk to care."
Moshfegh's prose, loaded with gore and candor, arrests the reader from the first sentence ("I wake up"). Brutality governs even the dialogue: "'What have you done?' says the captain...'We want to hear you say it'" (2).
Another book, and I'd be sentence-gawking, which one could do plenty of here. (Moshfegh's single-syllable punches ("Drink") and her archaic-brusque cartwheels ("There was a time I knew there was a god hearing my thoughts and I was careful what I let get said and there was a time the shame of what I heard up there made me bang my head against the wall and then I grew tall enough to walk into Lady's Lane and stuff my ears with liquor") is like a mash-up of Herman Melville and Kendrick Lamar.) Another book, and I'd be examining something writerly, craftish, say, pacing, how expertly McGlue's recollection of one unfortunate night/life is peeled open. Another book, and I'd be constellating images (dogs, teeth, stars, snakes) and charting the refrain-like repetition of key phrases ("this I remember") that propel a story set mostly in jail cells and down-belows against the agony of mandatory sobriety. Instead, I want to think about character and addiction—and what to do when, as readers, we identify rather aspire.
1. I have always loved to read—maybe because I was good at it. Long books, unabridged classics, as I referred to them in summery letters I wrote to my elementary school teachers: I devoured greedily at a young age (Little Women, age eight), reading the way spritely children walloped kickball balls.
I had a special fondness for old series. After all, I believed I belonged in another era, one with pinafores and Mary-Janes rather than bicycle shorts and slap bracelets. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and, yes, The Boxcar Children. Characters, plots, details—murky in the mud of the past. Now I wonder if I ever cared at all: solely I remember reading for confinement.
I refuse to Internet away this mystery. The boxcar children were orphans? Who cozied together, bravely, in a single boxcar? An older sister-sibling (?) fashioned warm beans and tinny coffee swimming with stale biscuits and other swallowables over a campfire? None of that matters. The Boxcar Children books captivated me because, basically, those kids were stuck.
2. In real-life, that is, my life, a solidly suburban girlhood: Hospitality Sunday was the first Sunday of each month at St. John of the Cross. After 9:15 Mass, the congregation walked from the church, past the rectory and a plantless garden with a steely statue of Christ, to the parish center, where apple juice and coffee and cinnamon donut holes awaited. At plastic-clothed tables, sociable families mingled; my family chewed.
My favorite part of Hospitality Sunday was using the bathroom. Often, I didn't have to go. I went exclusively to examine the handicapped stall. The stall was longer than wide, and behind the toilet was a pleasing shelf on which rolls of toilet paper were stacked. I was not a nimble child, though I imagined, in a Home Alone-type scenario, hopping onto the toilet seat and clambering onto this shelf, hiding myself from my mother should she come searing, tapping away at loose tile and inhaling the must of whatever life would be like between the walls. I did not care for make-believe or fantasy; rather, I liked the possibility of disappearing, stowing away, getting squashed and thereby lost.
When I learned to multiply, I would go to the stall and count the floor-tiles, length times width, and tabulate the area.
What could I fit in this space, if this were all I got? I'd ask myself, ignoring the rattle of the knob. My plans were more urgent than any line forming. A hot plate? A cot? How little do I need to survive?
3. Maybe settings appealed to me most because they didn't involve comparisons. When I positioned my preadolescent-self next to Anne Frank, Julie of the Wolves, Matilda, Juliet, Mary Anne or Claudia or Kristy of the Babysitter's Club, I didn't cut it. I wasn't virtuous, industrious, intelligent, or passionate enough; my handwriting was insufficiently bubbly, my earrings decidedly un-funky, my leadership skills zilch (Does not work well in groups, read my report cards, grades one through eight). Stories and novels, memoirs and autobiographies—these were guidebooks that showed you how a person, a successful person could be, if only you were dedicated enough to living a perfect kind of life.
Characters: role models, ideals, types, goals, friends, lovers, guides.
4. McGlue, however, is a murderer (spoiler), a New Englander (Salem), a seaman, a drunk. He is no ideal, no goal, no guide, no friend. Only, worse: in him, I recognize myself.
1. For all I longed to be a unified someone, I never succeeded. Awfully, I stole from characters' lives, cobbling together an ethos of my own. I've said it before: Her appetite, her anorexia, her penchant for blades and binging and barfing. His disaffection, his dissolution, his denial. Because borrowing from books was better than blundering through my boring own, I faked it till.
2. "My voice makes me ill to hear it," thinks McGlue. And isn't that what reading gave me? Much noise to drone out my Illinois talk.
3. Or, as Moshfegh put it, in a brief email interview: "McGlue's addiction to alcohol and the repeated traumas he suffers to his head function just as fiction functions in the life of the reader—as a means to escape the bondage of self."
1. I have a sober writer-friend. He texted while reading McGlue: "Lots of time...I had to put the book down, return from the edge of the abyss, breathe, etc." He is from New England, too.
2. Logic problem:
3. Triggery is the word I applied to anything under the sun that made starvation or self-injury seem like the cat's silkiest pajamas. But now, I can call myself what I was: hungry to be undone.
4. "In the front of a house a man was selling liquors. We went in and it was suddenly quiet—the noise of the streets and people and horses and bells hushed behind the closed door and the closeness of the booze. The booze, most of all, just sitting there, made it quiet" (Moshfegh 28). Booze—whether food or sharps or pills or junk—and the absence of it, the power of it, the living and breathing and wanting of it, drenches McGlue; and maybe this is why, while reading it and rereading it, I am silenced. A little scared.
What if fiction only further binds us to ourselves?
Because there I am, page after page, telling myself I don't want what I want.
1. The first time I recognized in literature the self I'd become (identified my thoughts) was the summer after my first year of college. I was dating a man who was reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, and one morning I picked up his copy: "I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies" (Wallace 3).
("They are moving mouthes" (Moshfegh 3).)
I was nineteen. For a good many reasons, I couldn't commit to Wallace. My excuses were so regular they didn't seem like excuses. I had to exercise two hours a day, count out my 690 calories, slice bananas into twenty-four full moons, start meaningless post-prandial fights that would give me reason to jet to the nearest bathroom and fingerbang my throat until I heaved up half-digested whatever and gummy spots of blood. I had to buy razors to see if I still liked my high school revue (no), swallow painkillers to see if I was tough enough to knock off (no). I had to do sit-ups and pray "Hail Marys," hoping at once to die and never to die, to understand nothingness and dissolve myself, to scramble my brain with petty calculations like the circumference of my arm. There: I was 7.5". Immortal.
For most of college, I read little more than short stories I could bounce through while counting 10,000 steps up the Stairmaster.
I never stopped wanting to read Infinite Jest, mostly because I kept returning to those first fifty pages. The reason I never abandoned the novel, the reason it never went the way of Ulysses ("Stately, plump Buck Mulligan..." stop), was wholly because of the second chapter, where Ken Erdedy anxiously waits for a woman to deliver $1250-worth of marijuana.
Weed meant mistakes (cheese pizza); my drug use consisted of gas station ephedra that kept me up for stints of forty-eight weepy hours. Behavior, I realized, while reading the second chapter of Jest was superficial; I didn't need to aspire to be a drug addict to identify with one's thoughts.
There was this:
"He began to grow disgusted with himself for waiting so anxiously for the promised arrival of something that had stopped being fun anyway. He didn't even know why he liked it anymore."
"He'd simply smoke so much so fast that it would be so unpleasant and the memory of it so repulsive that once he'd consumed it and gotten it out of his home and his life as quickly as possible he would never want to do it again."
But especially this:
"He would smoke it all even if he didn't want it. Even if it started to make him dizzy and ill. He would use discipline and persistence and will and make the whole experience so unpleasant, so debased and debauched and unpleasant, that his behavior would be henceforward modified, he'd never even want to do it again because the memory of the insane four days to come would be so firmly, terribly emblazoned in his memory. He'd cure himself by excess."
2. As Moshfegh says, "Among other things, I'm interested in pathology and identity. Home is where that shit is born. I'm also interested in recovery and transformation. Places and movement between spaces can reflect a lot in terms of a character's inner life."
The movement between spaces, or, rather, states is the metronome of addiction: empty or full, sober or drunk, starving or stuffed.
3. Are there two poles: people who see hell as other people, people who see hell as themselves? Is this human existence, a very broad and loathing spectrum?
1. Back in Salem, stuck in jail, McGlue encounters a vision of Johnson in his cell. This vision, though, is not all smoke and hallucination; in their final encounter, Johnson hands McGlue a hunk of mirror. Penitent, mournful, McGlue comes to the realization that he has killed the wrong man; now he must see what is inside himself:
2. I thought a lot about Infinite Jest while reading and rereading McGlue. Both novels channel minds spinning with compulsion and thirst; both novels are set in New England. And, just as McGlue—achey for grog or ale or rum—is visited by apparitions of the deceased Johnson, so too Jest's Don Gately (recovered drug addict, confined to hospital bed, frantically trying to communicate that absolutely, no way can he be administered narcotics) is haunted by an ethereal wraith. I also thought about Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining.
Just as McGlue and Gately wrangle with ghosts, so too does Jack Torrance. The phantom of an alcoholism, the specter of writing, the spiritual unrest murdering through the Overlook: Torrance's life teems with hauntings.
There's a scene in the film that I couldn't help rewatching. In it, Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) angrily wanders through the Overlook. After yet another upset with Wendy (Shelley Duvall), the labyrinthine hotel could not be large enough.
Torrance finds himself outside a grand ballroom, The Gold Room. It is dark (the hotel is closed for the season), but Torrance flips the lights, surveys the empty tables, and wanders to the empty bar. Head in his hands, Torrance mutters: "God! I'd give anything for a drink. I'd give my goddamn soul...for just a glass of beer."
In an instant, Lloyd the bartender appears before a now-fully-stocked bar. Happily, Lloyd pours a drink for Torrance, and, though purportedly sober, Torrance quaffs.
3. How easy to remember the quick change of skipping a meal: it's like taking off a winter coat. How difficult, though, to think about how books and art mutate us: Was I influenced or routed off course? Can I be rerouted by something I read, even today, nearly thirty? Did I pinpoint the characters I wanted to become or did their traits, their actions, their gestures and postures and mores and aims, like Torrance's Lloyd and Gately's wraith and McGlue's Johnson, simply present themselves to me, glimmering and potential, sporting something cold to gulp? When can I stop waiting and hoping for the woman I was meant to become?
1. The longer McGlue is forced to abstain from alcohol, the more he remembers about his past and the closer he comes to understanding what happened the night his friend, Johnson, died. But this is not a novel about clarity and hale self-acceptance. As McGlue is moved from the ship's underbelly to the jails of Salem, he picks at and pokes at and prods an unhealed wound on his head. This hole that he wants to fill with anything ("hay, oranges lemons, pineapples, cocoa, nuts, grapes, green fruit, and vegetables of every variety, and linseed oil cake...I fill my head with ships' blocks, binnacle lamps, signal lamps, compasses, shackles, sheaves, deadyeyes, rings and thimbles, dead lights, anchors, and chain cables of every description" (17-18)) only gapes more as the novel progresses and McGlue approaches his past's truth.
2. Where does one go when one is left with one's self? Is self-negation an escape or a cheat or a penance? Is this an either/or? Beyond being evolutionarily unfit, is self-destruction wrong? Unholy? Now that I am the person I've become, what am I sacrificing if I cast this old mantle off? How do we stomach ourselves?
3. Jest: "Once or twice [Erdedy] started to get up to go over closer to look at [the insect], but he was afraid that if he came closer and saw it closer he would kill it, and he was afraid to kill it.
4. Recently, my sister visited France and saw the Eiffel Tower. When she returned from her trip, I asked her if she'd gone up. "No," she told me. "Because if I went inside, I wouldn't be able to see it."
5. McGlue once more: "I feel I'm making progress when a soft spot tenderizes beneath the pressure of my thumb, like the breakdown of gristle. Then my ears stop working, which is one advancement, I think, first off. But it's just that I can't hear what's outside of me. Everything inside is perfectly clear: all the cringey nerves and blood, swimming vessels puckered and empty and breath blowing for nothing and bones just creaking, mad, swaying like strained and knotted rope, like my shoulders, my jaw, all held in place so tight they're about to snap" (50).
6. What I couldn't have seen from the outside of McGlue is the humanity in a real-life, nineteenth century murder. Moshfegh shows, again and again, how tiny the human cage is. From Zanzibar to Salem, McGlue must contend with himself: a writhing, teeming brain in a chipped up skull. This is what great fiction offers us: the chance to extend past empathy and identify, the chance to pulverize our selves.