Ottessa Moshfegh begins her new novella, “I wake up,” and spends the next 118 pages exploring what awake means. It’s McGlue who wakes drunk, head split open, and he’s spitting teeth that “scatter across the deck like dice.” He’s bleeding and looking for a place to puke when he hears other men on the ship say that he killed Johnson, who was his friend, his close friend, and had saved McGlue’s life more than once. When they first met, Johnson had scooped McGlue out of the snow where he would have happily died drinking. This is the Johnson who funded McGlue’s booze habit and led them around the world, who woke McGlue in the middle of the night to share his “life words.” But now Johnson is dead and McGlue is stuffed in the hold of the ship where he tries to remember what happened. But memory, as Moshfegh writes it, is a lot like rolling the dice. On one toss you win and on the next there’s nothing—you get something somehow less than zero. So you keep rolling and rolling until it’s the rolling rather than the results that mean anything.
The story takes place in the 1850s. Moshfegh creates a world of ships and ports, drinking and fighting that is vivid and steady. But it’s McGlue’s voice, in first person, that makes the story compelling and holds my interest. He is brutal and tender. He can talk about anything and I listen, even when I know he’s lying. Moshfegh, who has previously written and published short stories and was awarded the Plimpton Prize for her work in The Paris Review, brings a trusty ear for words to this slightly longer form. Her language moves. On page after page are turns of phrase like, “He hands me the pen and points. I make a puddle of my name,” which are unique, even pretty, but aren’t just for show. They speak to McGlue’s consciousness. He is making a puddle of himself with booze, or by smashing his head and drinking his own blood when there’s no rum around.
It’s difficult to read McGlue and not think of The Stranger. By the second page Meursault has fallen asleep and by the second-to-last he wakes with the night’s stars in his eyes. He finally doesn’t want to miss anything. Meursault has purged himself of hope, and there’s a sense that McGlue has, too. As he dries up aboard the ship and then later in prison, awaiting trial and meeting occasionally with his lawyer (also very similar to The Stranger), the story flashes back to before his incarceration. He thinks and dreams about drinking and traveling with Johnson and drinking, usually in that order. He talks to the ghost of Johnson but can’t remember what happened the night Johnson died. And he tries to heal, though the way Moshfegh depicts it, healing is worse than being injured because healing hurts and it itches.
McGlue wants a drink. He really, really does. But don’t be fooled—this isn’t a book about drinking. His addiction is actually what distracts him from the fact that for the first time in his life he’s asking why instead of what. Unlike Meursault in The Stranger, whose understanding grows and grows in one direction, McGlue’s clarity, that vision of God or truth, or whatever you want to call it, comes in waves. Enlightenment is dosed, as if we have to practice understanding because we can’t handle it all at once. When McGlue was young, Moshfegh writes, “I knew there was a god hearing my thoughts and I was careful what I let get said and there was a time the shame of what I heard up there made me bang my head against the wall and then I grew tall enough to walk into Lady Lane’s and stuff my ears with liquor.” He has a lot to unremember: a horrible mother, a dead kid brother. So he reopens his skull when he’s left alone in his cell. He wants a drink, another thing you dose unless you want to make yourself ill. But he also wants something else, something more.
Sadness can be hilarious, if you look at it right, and Moshfegh does. One chapter begins, “My mother isn’t so happy to see me. She comes to the door with a lit candle and a knife.” Or, speaking again of knives—there’s quite a few, actually—when McGlue is in prison his lawyer leaves a newspaper in the jail cell. McGlue picks it up, unfolds it, and “Inside a knife. I hide it in the mattress and sit down to read. The paper is very useful.” The paper does become useful, but not because McGlue kills himself with the knife, which seems to be the lawyer’s hope. Instead, he reads the paper, looking at “the world of Dry Goods,” which lists a series of items that calm McGlue and remind him of his friend.
At one point when Johnson suggests that they might “make it,” meaning become successful adults, McGlue says, “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.” This book is the clarity achieved from that bottom. You fall in a well to know how far down it goes. Don’t trust a tossed rock; be one. So we, like Johnson, feel safe with McGlue even though he keeps breaking his skull open and threatening to dunk his head in a barrel of gin because he’s basically religious about being the worst off. It’s a strange way to come to trusting someone, but it works. McGlue himself is intoxicating. It’s exhilarating to see someone transcend this life without wanting to.
– Luke Wiget is a writer and musician who lives in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has appeared in BOMB, The Millions, Smokelong Quarterly, Green Mountains Review, among others. He co-curates and hosts drDOCTOR, a podcast and reading series. Find Luke on Twitter @godsteethandme.