McGlue is a story about a homeless, illiterate, lascivious, drunk, who has little respect for authority, which manages to make the reader feel sympathetic toward the protagonist. Imprisoned aboard a ship en route to Salem, Massachusetts, McGlue is accused of murdering his best friend, Johnson. The trouble is, McGlue can’t remember anything, let alone how his best friend died, or even if he is dead. So begins Ottessa Moshfegh’s darkly unique novel of memory, apathy, and murder.
Much of the action takes place within McGlue’s mind as he struggles to remember the events that led to the death of his friend. This may be a detractor for some as McGlue is a more literary novel, heavy in characterization and thin in plot. However, Moshfegh’s masterful use of the unreliable narrator technique helps to create suspense and drama in an otherwise plotless environment. Not only do McGlue’s aberrant actions put into question his retelling of events, but after sustaining a serious head injury, his memory begins to fail him. Past events mix with the present and hallucinations plague him, including regular visits from the deceased Johnson. The only solace comes from alcohol, which absorbs McGlue’s every waking moment: “The word ‘world’ rears around like something I could swallow and burp and taste and get all up in me and sick of ... ”
In McGlue’s mind, the world is a poison, something he can abuse to get sick and wasted and forget his aimless, pathetic existence. There is nothing in his life worth remembering, though we get plenty of glimpses into his past. Initially, I felt these jumps in time from chapter to chapter were a bit jarring. In hindsight, this is the saving grace of the book. These constant time lapses in the narrative parallel what is going on in McGlue’s damaged mind, which is unable to organize his memories into sequential, cogent thoughts. This intimate, disorienting glimpse into the mind of McGlue connects the reader with an otherwise unpardonable anti-hero.
Some of McGlue’s ethical actions include holding his mom up at knifepoint, running away from home, abusing women, casually mocking a homosexual man, and looking for elderly men to beat up. In one of his more vivid childhood memories, McGlue remembers tying his dog to a post outside of his house and not even shedding a tear. Regarding his life, McGlue states, “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 ... but I certainly hadn’t thought about making it ... ”
Having such a despondent miscreant as a protagonist is depressing and certainly hurts the novel’s wider appeal. Perhaps McGlue is a metaphor for a lost soul, wandering the earth without purpose or zeal or life, and why such a person could be capable of taking one. Perhaps, in this sense, it is a cautionary tale to those who live the life of a social pariah, living without meaning or purpose and riling up trouble just for fun. Fortunately for McGlue, Johnson comes to the rescue.
Johnson plays the role of the gallant hero, striding in on a horse (no less), who rescues McGlue from his drunken stupor (nothing new) and gets them both jobs as deckhands on a ship. In McGlue’s mind, Johnson is a man so tough he could, and I quote: “ ... melt a sword if you tried to slice him with it.” Yet, this strong, independent man succumbs to his drunken ways and is poisoned by the world, just as McGlue is. As they work aboard the ship and bounce from brothel to brothel, the real Johnson comes forth and is revealed to be a disheartened man, unable to find happiness or fulfillment, eventually asking McGlue to take his life: “'Quiet, Mick,’ says Johnson handing me a wad of bills across the table. 'Keep it,' he says, 'but first slit my throat.'” The lone symbol of courage, bravery, and hope in the novel becomes suicidal. In this sense, Johnson’s spiritual downfall could be viewed as the death of hope, optimism, and fulfillment.
Needless to say, McGlue is not the most uplifting novel, nor is it the most lucid. The syntax and structure can be awkward and difficult to get a grasp of, as is the fact that it’s an historical novel, without offering any valid historical context (aside from McGlue’s blatant racism and homophobia) to warrant such a decision. In my view, the novel could have easily taken place in modern times without being drastically different. Also, even though McGlue continues to profess his innocence, based upon his history of violence, there is little doubt of his guilt, which leads to an expected, albeit satisfying conclusion.
Poetic at times, confusing at others, strange throughout, McGlue is a challenging book to read and defies standard stylistic conventions. For this reason, it deserves some merit as an unconventional read, although the protagonist’s immoral, antisocial behavior may be too much for some to overlook. If nothing else, Moshfegh’s novel is a lens through the tortured mind of a malcontent, attempting to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Seen through this light, it is successful.
Cardoso is a writer of science fiction and comedy and sometimes both. He has published one essay and graduated from Sacramento State University with a bachelor’s degree in English.