In 1851 Salem, Massachussets, a shiphand named McGlue wakes up, “head swaying and cursing”. His swaying cursing head oozes blood and pus, and he cannot remember whether he killed his best friend Johnson the night before. Tied to a dingy cot in the hold of the ship, McGlue spends the following days – and much of the novella – mired in his own excrement, sifting through confused memories of his hysterically godforsaken life.
A haunting men-on-boats noir, Ottessa Moshfegh’s first work of fiction (just published for the first time in the UK) is Moby Dick through a broken, twisted looking glass. Moshfegh writes a fascinating, ugly form of brotherhood, shot through with homophobic homoeroticism, violence and taboo. It is a pungent novella, that revels in its own foulness with a wink and a nudge.
As for McGlue, it is hard, as a reader, to know what we should do with the drunken sailor. A caricature of abjection, he is a raging alcoholic with a bleak past, sensitive to love, to words and to ghosts; he is also viciously misogynistic (cheered, often, by the “game” of choking women), passionately if expectedly bigoted, and thoroughly unpleasant.
What to do with McGlue becomes the central query of the book, which ably reflects on questions of addiction, justice and punishment in the loaded context of Salem where multiple ways of understanding wrongdoing compete. It could be a repetitive story (and the scenes do tend to blend into one), but Moshfegh’s sharp, strangely textured prose makes McGlue shock in all the right ways.
Words – Gill Moore