McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh, book review: plunges the reader straight into an evil hangover

Think of booze and writers, and the list of men is a long one. The roll call of women is somewhat shorter: Highsmith, Parker, McCullers, Rhys, Duras… Recent TV and film, from Girls to Trainwreck and Fleabag, is now awash with bibulous broads, literature less so – perhaps why Rachel Watson’s blackouts in Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train caused something of a stir.

The three books by American writer Ottessa Moshfegh – who was in AA for eight years – are immersed in the stuff. The protagonist of her second novel, Eileen – shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker – is a self-loathing binge-drinker who lives at home with her alcoholic father. The heroine of the story ‘Bettering Myself’, which opens her short fiction debut, Homesick for Another World, is a often soused depressive who lives in a cardboard box at the back of the school she teaches in.

Her first work of fiction, the historical novella McGlue, now published in the UK, plunges the reader straight into an evil hangover. McGlue is a 19th-century deckhand from Salem, Massachusetts, locked in the hold, chained to a cot, and accused of knifing Johnson, his wealthy gay lover, to death. What unfurls over barely 100 pages – inspired by a story in a New England newspaper from the 1850s – is a salty fever-dream in which McGlue tries to piece together what happened.

“I wake up mornings with my head in a vice,” he says – a relatable hero. “The only solution is to drink again. That makes me almost jolly. It does wonders in the morning to take my mind of the pain and pressure. I can use my eyes after that first drink, I remember how to line up my feet and walk, loosen my jaw, tell someone to get out of my way.”

Some might balk at the indignities stacked on his shoulders, as is sometimes the case with the protagonists in her other work. Others will revel in the surfeit. From Zanzibar he is taken back to America, where he faces a trial and the judgement of his mother.

“Once I started working on the book, I could hear him rambling around in my brain, impatient and wild,” she has said of her hero, and the novella is mainly an exercise in sustaining a voice, at perhaps the expense of a deeper exploration of character.

Moshfegh is, however, a superlative short-story writer. Homesick for Another World, which came out in January, is one of the best collections I’ve ever read, full of wonderful weirdos hopelessly stymied by their cluelessness. The noir-ish, highly praised Eileen, written, by Moshfegh’s own admission, to bag a big-name publishing deal, I found less convincing, despite its intermittent comic coups. McGlue, which owes as much to Cormac McCarthy as it does to Poe or Melville, is an entertaining curio with some lovely baroque flourishes, but it’s mainly an aperitif to her short stories. “A good short story can break my heart in a way a novel just can’t,” she has said, pointing, perhaps, to where her real interests lie.  

McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh is published by Penguin, £7.99


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