#tobyreads: Fragmentary Lives, Transmitted Over the Air


I hadn’t been terribly aware of Ottessa Moshfegh’s short novel McGlue before a couple of well-timed recommendations brought it to my attention in a big way. The first was a rave about Moshfegh’s work as a whole that appeared at Bustle; the second was a glowing review via WORD. And so I delved in; what I ended up reading was a story about a hard-drinking sailor consumed by hatred for both himself and those around him. The novel opens in the aftermath of a killing; narrator McGlue is told that he’s killed someone; he seems in denial of it, and of most things. Gradually, more details of his life emerge: his friendship with another sailor, their ship’s traversal of the globe, the slow unraveling of his mind as he’s confined.

This is an often brutal book, narrated by a character who sees the world in contemptuous, often brutal terms. The way in which Moshfegh reveals the scope of the world–where the book is set, and where, are only apparent after a fair amount of pages have passed–is also impressive. Though ultimately, the book’s title and narrator are its true setting; for all that McGlue might occupy a certain time and place in the context of this narrative, his head seems to dwell in a place outside of time. It’s a searing piece of work.

I’d been meaning to get to Sean Michaels’s novel Us Conductors a while ago, as that also came highly recommended. His Giller Prize win earlier this month finally cemented my need to read it, and for a 400-plus page novel dealing with questions of politics, moral compromise, and thwarted love, it moves at a shockingly rapid pace. This novel’s narrator is Léon Theremin, scientist and inventor, looking back on his life from certain vantage points. At the center of Michaels’s novel is Theremin’s love for the musician Clara Reisenberg, who he meets during his time living in the United States. That that time is spent both securing industrial uses for his inventions and doing espionage for the Soviet Union adds abundant moral compromise to the mix. And, as narrators go, Michaels’s version of Theremin pulls off the trick of both seeming to be an innocent in over his head and a figure ravaged by guilt. It’s a deeply powerful work.

I’ve published some of Lynn Lurie’s fiction here, and so I was curious to read her new novel Quick Kills as well. It’s a short novel told in a fragmentary style. At its center is a young woman, and the different relationships in her life exist in a kind of counterpoint. Her sister remains an elusive figure throughout; the older photographer who pursues a relationship with her exists in a more charged, taut place, a corrupting figure placed near the heart of things. Lurie’s use of fragments, and the retrospective lens through which the story is told, lend the work a memorably dreamlike quality.

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