Three Short, Savage Books You Have to Read
'McGlue,' 'The Dig,' and 'Love Hotel' are three feverish novels where the only things that seem for certain are fear and death.
It's pretty clear by now that everything is fucked. So much so that even sitting at home and reading seems insane. As such, it's become more and more difficult for me to believe a narrator who has any kind of clue what they are doing, where we're headed, or whose world is anything but a constantly mutating maze, where memory and reality collapse into one another as casually as all the other horrors.
Thankfully, and just in time for the throbbingly high temperatures and allergy plagues that come alongside spring-turning-to-summer, here are three short, feverish novels where the only things that seem for certain are fear and death, and that every coming sentence could be the one that changes everything.
McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh ( Fence Books, 2014)
It's stereotypically not a great sign for a work of fiction to begin with a line like "I wake up." But in the case of McGlue's eponymous narrator, McGlue, who goes on to include that he is drunk and covered in blood, such a banal introduction is only a red herring, one of many the novella will reveal as it unwinds.
Essentially, McGlue is the story of a guy who has been accused of murdering a man while out at sea among a ship full of filthy sailors, and who can only remember in blips. The narration carries us through its body with all the lucidity of a self-inflicted victim of brain damage. One of the few things McGlue does know for sure is he likes to drink—to the point that the rest of his life and situation is so askew he can't tell the past from the present, the dead from the haunted, his penance from his crime.
What we are left with, then, is an interweaving of a prisoner's attempt to piece together his whole life. Fragments of memories of his best friend, Johnson—whom he may or may not have killed—intersperse as phantoms locked alongside the drifting ambience of a Melville-like black thrall. In the same breath as McGlue is calling the chamber boy assigned to keep him fed, he dreams he is in bed with Johnson in his arms. Memories bend into drunken stupors into passing aspirations to stay drunk, knitting the phases of perspective into a reckless whorl.
Holding together this open-map world of McGlue's wasted, wandering psyche is the flowing yet baroque voice with which he leads us through his mind. Extremely simple sentences such as "Blood leaks from my mouth" fit together with more deceptively declarative assessments of the space, such as: "I'd say my cell was six feet wide, ten feet long, and ten high last night, and this morning it's four feet wide, eight feet long, and seven feet high." No matter how far afield or deeply into spirits we are carried, McGlue's dark logic remains a guide, laying foundations line by line that, even as they fall away, provide another floor right there beneath it, traps on traps on traps.
In a time when mostly no one seems to be writing about drunk death freaks on the ocean anymore, and for all its self-deceptions, its stop-start miseries, its sprawl, McGlue is as satisfying as anything you're likely to find appearing in your weird little hands this year.
The Dig by Cynan Jones ( Coffee House Press, 2015)
Like McGlue, Welsh novelist Cynan Jones's third and latest work, The Dig, begins with an act of violence, if one much more certain of its place: A country man is trying to unload the beaten body of a badger maimed by dogs in local illegal fights, the man's primary line of work. "The dogs had pulled the front of its face off and its nose hung loose and bloodied, hanging from a sock of skin. It hung off the badger like a separate animal." With even as little actual action as there is here, the idea of what has already happened, and what will soon happen again, alights its pain almost even more sickeningly than if shown directly, leaving the reader hung in the balance between moral horror and putrefaction.
Which, as it turns out, becomes one of this novel's greatest strengths. Whereas many works of such nature would use such an opening as foreshadowing toward greater monstrosity, The Dig is more interested in the space between brutality and justice. Interspersed between the scenes of the nameless gamesman—referred to throughout as "the big man"—are parallel accounts of a local farmer whose lambs are all giving birth. The two are pitted against one another from very early on in this way, indirectly, providing a sense of impending collision that grows and grows, layering each subsequent scene with a kind of lurking darkness, as though at any minute the whole world within the book might burst.
Jones has received numerous comparisons to Cormac McCarthy for his sense of minimalist meter and ink-black tone, and for once the comparison bears more weight than just being about strange country people. As the trapper goes about his illegal business hunting new badgers for fighting, the narration is content with exploring not so much the sprawl of action, but its space. Stark scenes of men digging through the earth after a live animal press up against the appearance of strange voices the farmer hears alone elsewhere in the night; the textures bend back and forth on one another, trading their friction, waiting, incubating. Even without any clear release, it is in this sense of meditation between opposite forces in the same land that we are carried, turned and turned as if in winds that have blown somewhere not far off in our world, one where the textured silences might hide as much menace as the loudest wailing.
Love Hotel by Jane Unrue ( New Directions, 2015)
A sense of open menace also lurks throughout Love Hotel, the latest work from Jane Unrue, though its direction and intent might be the most unknown as yet. Compared to the two examples above, the terrain of Love Hotel is more skeletal, fragmentary, subject to shake. Here, the narration frequently interrupts itself even in mid-sentence or during a gesture left incomplete. Like the structure of the looping hallways and staircases in Alain Resnais's iconic maze-film, Last Year at Marienbad , the very architecture of the world continues to mutate alongside any understanding of itself, as well as in the logic of the narrator, a nameless woman whom we are left to follow through uncertain darkness as if haunting her ourselves, from just behind.
And yet it is primarily this very mutating structure that lends the book its most pressing sense of suspense and eerie charm. There's so much white space between the paragraphs, the pages, often leaving a single sentence or a word free, like a trail. I can't help but think of the text of a video game, the way you move through it searching for what will speak next, what colors will emerge, what direction you will be led in. However, if there is a game here, it's more like a corrupted version of middle hours of The Shining than anything with thr undead or guns.
The narrator is looking for something, or someone—we seem to know that much at least, even if we are not sure exactly what or who—in a hotel that seems to disintegrate at will, eventually rolling over into open landscapes, other houses. The narrator's understanding of the world multiplies, too, often seeming to shift between several perspectives contained within the same body, all of which bleed together, drown each other out. She seems primarily to be consumed with fulfilling a task for a couple whose presence also mutates: Sometimes they seem to want her to become impregnated for them, other times to be a sexual companion, and yet other times to function as a kind of errand-person, meant to wander from room to room waiting to be given meaning.
One page just reads: "I stuck the key into the" and ends without even punctuation, leaving you to move forward onto the next page, describing the architecture of a room. "402 / It was a double with an ivory eyelet canopy on top with ruffle around the bottom both in dusty pink coordinated loosely with the carpet more directly with the walls all painted in the same pink color." Like the rest of the world around it, the grammar mutates, as does the layout. And yet we sense that there is meaning behind a phrase or shape of space.
And, as continuously unfurling and unraveling as the plot is, it is magnetic in the way it draws you through from page to page. The landscape of the text itself is as alive and cryptic as the world it describes (or fails to describe): Jagged edges to the broken paragraphs climb down through single words stacked into columns sometimes in all caps and sometimes italics, ornate descriptions clipped off in mid-sentence, questions asked and immediately discarded. Inherent to it all is the sense of sacred unknowing of the narrator, a sense of unshakable conviction to keep throwing one's self forward within some faceless sorrow. Overall here is an actual experience, on paper, one charged with so sharp a sense of mystery you could probably keep reading the book over and again, finding new narrow areas to worm through, vivify, obsess with, open.
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- Blake Butler
- Ottessa Moshfegh
- Love Hotel
- The Digger
- Cynan Jones
- Jane Unrue
- Last Year at Marienbad
- independent literature