Ottessa Moshfegh does not seem to have a very high opinion of human beings. And she’s also very much interested in bodily functions. Her stories are peopled with horrible people doing disgusting things. And McGlue is no exception. The titular character is a sailor who may or may not have murdered his best friend, another sailor named Johnson. He is an alcoholic–or, as he puts, “a windup doll looking for a glass teat to suck”. He spends much of the story confined–first in a small cell on his ship, then in a jail cell in Salem, Massachusetts. It’s 1851. McGlue yearns for booze, vomits repeatedly, suffers from some kind of fever and a crack in his head, stinks to high heaven. He wanders with his mind back to his childhood–where he started drinking at a tender age, and lost at least two siblings–and his (mostly drunken and lewd) adventures with Johnson. Almost all his physical descriptions are unflattering: the ship’s captain “resembles a drowned man: doughy-faced, unbearded, eyes bulging and colorless, veins showing clearly at his throat”, a woman’s “arms were so soft and warm I thought I’d be sick from how her flesh gave at the slightest poke of my fingers” (this being McGlue’s recollection of his first sexual experience), and McGlue himself catches his own reflection in the mirror and compares it to “a drawing of a hungry, long-bearded squirrel”. There’s a list of all the smells he and Johnson endured in their lives at sea (“the rank and writhing stink of sailors, tanks of spoilt fish, latrines, the blast when we removed our shirt”), and the story reaches its climax when McGlue, spurred on by Johnson’s ghost/hallucination, repeatedly pokes at the crack in his head with a knife.
I’m not sure why I like Moshfegh’s stuff so much. I guess it’s often quite funny. And perhaps I’m a bit of a literary sensation seeker, daring myself to stick with the story no matter how unsympathetic the protagonist becomes, or revolting his or her actions and thoughts. Also, Moshfegh does arrange sentences in such a way that it is difficult to look away–you do want to find out what happens next, even when you know that what happens next will be less than pleasant. Even my wife, who felt so unclean after reading Moshfegh’s better-known novel Eileen that I was more or less officially banned from telling her about McGlue, still devoured Eileen in a day or two, all the while texting me the most hilariously repulsive bits.
With McGlue specifically, there’s a warm and fuzzy core to it that I found irresistible. McGlue genuinely loves Johnson (whose death he doesn’t accept until close to the end of the book), and, though often he expresses this love in a violent way, there are a number of surprisingly sweet moments. I was almost moved by the moment when McGlue finds a newspaper and heads straight to the luxurious “dry goods” section so it reminds him of Johnson, who came from a posher background:
It was black serge and grey and pale pink silk scarves like that, near me like that, alone together squatted down out of the wind, in the mud, drunk and tired and unwatched and me with my head on my knees and Johnson’s hands in my hair, warm and near and together like that like bridge and tide and roof and blinded by sunlight and swaddled, me swaddled in love for him like a wolf in blankets like fine grey merinos, drunk as brothers. Like pale brown satinets. Like royal blue flannel and orleans, alpaca blankets.
Compared to her other books, Moshfegh’s language here is also more experimental, with long sentences like the one I just quoted, obscure words like “antifogmatic” rubbing shoulders with only slightly clunky neologisms like “look-aftering” and modern-teen-like expressions of insolence (“I just look at him like, What?“), and a certain rugged quality that somehow make this believable as a story narrated by a drunken nineteenth-century sailor. It made me wanted to read it all aloud.
I realise McGlue is not for everyone, but I recommend it all the same. I’ve just returned it to the library, and–I don’t know, in spite of everything, I’m going to miss this drunken fool.