It is a bright and wasted day.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel reads like the swashbuckled spray of a slit throat — immediate, visceral, frank, unforgiving, violent, and grotesquely beautiful. McGlue, a transient drunk with a crack in his head, beats (at times quite literally) against his own possibility with overconsumption, nihilism, self-destructiveness, and utter depravity. The early staccato sentences read like the quick pulse of a hangover, a throbbing jugular of things not remembered, misremembered, unable to be remembered, or denied. Knives of lucidity occasionally cut into the haze of alcoholism and concussion.
It’s 1851, on the high seas, in the hold. McGlue, a deckhand, is too drunk to be sure of anything. The where, when, why, who are all a blur; he’s blind beyond the desire for another drink. His shipmates tell him he killed a man: his best friend, Johnson. Where is Johnson? he wants to know. Why is Johnson not visiting him? McGlue is being shipped home to stand trial. All he wants is to drink.
I yearn for ale and a song. This is home — me down in the heart of the drifting vessel, wanting, going somewhere.
The use of single word imperative sentences (primarily, “Drink.”) show the disease stitching its commands into McGlue’s narrative. Adrift, port to port, headed toward trial, he combats sobriety, his head trauma’s lingering drum, and memory. Still, memories wisp up: a brother with the “brittle blue eyes like a tired pastor” who died in their childhood house, crushed by a fallen stone wall; his mother tormented by loving her wicked son, McGlue, and his constant fuck-uppery and feral-ness; nearly freezing to death at 15, drunk in New Haven, Johnson coming along to save him; McGlue’s falling from a train in New York City, cracking his head; Johnson sparing him again and again. But as the ship rises and falls, so does the haze, and through it moments of tender friendship clarify, as does Johnson’s own dire need for McGlue.
Yet everything [Johnson] did to me he did to save my life. Fed me crumbs in bed nights, all I could keep down, helped me glug and didn’t deny me any kind of drink. “I’ve got a dream of us on the high water,” he’d said. He made it happen. He was like that — burning with want and courage, drunk that way. I had so much in kin with him, drunk on drink and supped and with my mouth full of deep meaning, drooling, head half caved-in from my fall from the train. He had changed full round from that dolt who came across me freezing in the woods outside New Haven. He had become, truth be told, a kind of monster. He talked of killing his father, wrath and bloodlust wrinkling his fine brow. “You’ve helped me,” he always said. I knew what he meant. Fuck the world and go on, that was what I taught him. It seems he’s fallen from his own train.
These equally hazy references to Johnson’s father, and Johnson’s spoken desire to kill him, occasionally litter the memories. It goes unexplained in detail, but Moshfegh makes us feel the weight of it — whatever that pressure or pain is that a parent can bring upon a child — and there’s weight enough to derail Johnson and send him running to sea. Perhaps it’s the unhappiness of young men that provokes them to self-medicate and go in search of “some dumb fantasy” that will fulfill them; perhaps it’s some disappointment, shame, or a rejection of Johnson’s family’s wealth and prominence, his inheritance. What Johnson wants is to see the world, labor, make his own way, perhaps prove something, or escape, indulge in the very smut and debauch for which McGlue, from the moment Johnson happened upon him freezing, is a poster boy.
McGlue, imprisoned, sobers further, remembers more: Johnson talking about being done with old ties, going someplace where they both can make it.
I didn’t want to make it. I wanted to lie down with it and strangle it and kill it and save it and nurse it and kill it again and I wanted to go and forget where I was going and I wanted to change my name and forget my face and I wanted to drink and get my head ruined but I certainly hadn’t thought about making it.
What is this it? Sobriety is only the obvious answer. This it is a deeper seed. The it is the memory of McGlue’s dead brother. The brother who “was more than me and brave and cooked at the fire and pushed me away when I put my hand out for it.” The it is that God exists but goodness is killed anyway. Perhaps this disillusionment activates McGlue’s alcoholism, or his subsequent refusals to sober up, or make peace with it, or Him; perhaps it is why he debauched, ran away; why he cannot speak of the Bible his lawyer leaves him as anything other than “that book.”
For good measure, I open the book Foster has left me. I want to see if God himself will guide my finger to an answer. The question being why the woe, why such tidings? Why not just the breeze and the ocean? Why me?
And in the “Why me?” there is, possibly, the “Why him?”
As McGlue awaits trial, his withdrawal ripples less. His mother visits him, heartbroken, and McGlue twists her arm and tells her not to come back unless she brings him a drink; sickness upon sickness upon sickness. Memories clarify still, and Johnson’s sickness becomes clearer, his teetering imbalance; whatever weight he carried becoming too much to bear. The sentences escalate in complexity and coherency, and a question arises from this newfound clarity: which sickness had a tighter grip, and on whom?
In truth it is a miracle I can read at all, my head broken as it is and my mind constantly on what is not going down my throat. But I should say that my vision of a drink is less potion than pain as I see it these days. I’d rather not think of it at all. Something has altered beneath the few still live wires on the surface of my brain. I am beginning to be thirsty for something more. I can barely explain it. And I feel I don’t know anything. I never did, as a kid or man, nothing.
But McGlue does not give himself enough credit.
What comes from the memory of Johnson’s death is the truest, most difficult sense of friendship — a tender portrayal of sacrifice, of revelation, of McGlue’s own possibility in the rancid corners of a violent and callused world. There are different kinds of torture, self-loathing, painful memory, buried things, definitions of vice, loneliness. There are kinds of friendship in which one tormented identifies in the other something worse, and not out of anything but love, helps his friend, puts him to bed.
I stand. I stand praying, just to see what happens. All I know to do is put my hand on my heart. There’s no real evil there, I’m sure. But it is empty.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel calls to mind the blackness, torment, and self-infliction of Poe and Robert W. Chambers, and the sensory detail, guttural prose, raw wit, and sincerity of Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” McGlue has the urgency of short fiction married with the grandiosity of an epic at-sea classic.
Yet, the economy of language and pacing removed me from moments I wished to linger in and explore for a few more beats. There is so much foulness to McGlue that, at times, he almost becomes a mockery; his monstrosity is so amped up and lopsided, the tender moments so few, that my engagement was less sincere than I wanted it to be. I would have liked more of McGlue and Johnson’s relationship, more of his brother’s story to counteract McGlue’s irredeemable qualities, and more of that poor heartbroken mother. Moshfegh’s use of white space and subtext generally function at a high-level, but there were times I had to fight against the speed of the prose to make connections. And, so, this criticism is more of a wanting — for more McGlue, more memory, more meat.