November 2014

Brian Nicholson

fiction

Coyote by Colin Winnette and McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh

Colin Winnette's Coyote takes place in a lonely space. Narrated by the mother of a missing child who has gone the route of the TV talk show circuit and come no closer to having her daughter returned to her. She then finds, as the media circus moves on, another absence around her. Her husband is referred to only as "her Dad," speaking to an alienation that the now-gone child is how she relates to him. The premise suggests the spare tone the prose strikes, an air marked by the quiet of people missing.

Coyote won a contest, selected by Aimee Bender to be published by Les Figues Press. The circumstances of its publication parallel Ottessa Moshfegh's McGlue, chosen by Rivka Galchen as the winner of a contest being held by Fence Books. Both books are also fairly short, double spaced, and novella length. Each also essentially makes a mystery of erasure. Their narrators related to the world through someone else, now absent, and are left afloat in memory and loneliness. It's interesting to note that each author narrates here through the perspective of the opposite sex, although this is the sort of thing I would generally find inconsequential and unworthy of mention, for any author can choose the voice of any of their characters. Still, both books seem to understand males as violent creatures who can perform the worst betrayals so effortlessly they might not even remember doing so.

Moshfegh's McGlue feels closer to something bloody, and spends its first sentences waking up a protagonist encrusted in his own mess. Subsequently, it seems the richer work, although owing to its size, such richness might be recognized only in contrast to another author. Moshfegh is at this point known primarily as a short story writer, with work published in The Paris Review, and has a long list of honors that point to any forthcoming collection of those pieces as potentially a big deal. Any novel longer than McGlue seems likely to be brought out by a major house and earn a share of accolades. This is her first book and its low profile might mark it as minor in years to come, but for now that's speculation: In the moment we are in presently, we can consider it among authors whose standing is of comparative stature.

Each novel's narrator is the victim of a violence that makes it so they cannot necessarily perceive the facts of what has happened to them. In McGlue's case, it is a headwound that won't heal that accounts for the gap in the eponymous narrator's understanding. In the case of Coyote's unnamed woman narrator, there is a perhaps abusive relationship she excuses with a rationale that is in itself a way of avoiding seeing things the way they are, almost akin to McGlue's drinking.

McGlue is a drunkard, an alcoholic, a verbal abuser, a haver of hangovers. We can imagine him speaking in slurred speech. The sentences of his narration have a jostled seasick rhythm: 

In some time the boat stills on the water and I hear the dull and grainy sound of shore. I imagine what it looks like: Purple hills in the distance. Girls in thick red-and-white dresses, donkeys wearing carpets, bodegas full of gut-stabbing liquor. Cold wet deck I'd skip down and the gritty black dirt I'd clear bits of trash away from before I'd kiss.

Winnette does not seek to stumble. He wants his narrator's words spoken into a crisply quiet air, unmarred by percussive clatter. Her voice is sad in a way that alcohol's giddiness could easily overtake.

I don't feel safe anymore. I haven't since she vanished. And it's only gotten worse. You hear all kinds of sounds at night. I grew up in a place like this. Not far from here actually. Different woods, but woods are woods. As a child, every sound becomes something worse than what it really is. Even if it's something dangerous enough already, it becomes a nightmare in your mind.

This figure is taken from television. Her story is inspired by those grieving figures we've seen on the news, where each story's primary feature is a sense of surface skimming. Their proper names are given to instill a sense of the present moment's tragedy as producers prey on easy-to-imagine universal feelings. Here, the only names we're told are that belonging to a talk show host and to another talk show's production assistant. What we are reading is Winnette's imagining of what is just past that reoccurring surface spectacle. It is assumed a resident of the modern world will know the tale already, but perhaps will not have made the extrapolating leap made here. These characters are not deeper than those on the news, but only marked by the more subtle sadness of the imagined loss that ensues once the camera crews move on. Winnette aims to see past the news' narrative-spinning into a more subtle space, where the aches are quieter and less performative, and there is some space for deadpan humor and unphotogenic sex.

Moshfegh's McGlue, owing to its historical setting, is rooted in a nineteenth-century world of written texts, and through that, literature's interiority. McGlue receives the world through almanacs and newspapers, and making lists of objects and the people to associate them with. As a sailor, he's made rounds of the globe, and Moshfegh's world seems that much more deeply imagined and thought through, her characters understandable as individuals rather than vague concepts.

The world in Coyote is strangely bare: There are coyotes in the woods around the house that suggest a lack of civilization. Still there is public transportation the narrator refuses to ride, and a plurality of talk shows filmed within driving distance. It's a mixture of Middle America, urban comforts, and total emptiness. As it lacks any specificity with regards to location or character, there is likewise no mention made of any realities of work. The married couple walks around their empty home and struggles to find anything to do inside it.

McGlue's class awareness gives an engine to its plot. The narrator is viewed by almost all as human garbage for the killing of Johnson, a man of respectable origins. The friendship struck up by the two of them is fairly moving: The alcoholic has great affection for the slumming man who saves his life and buys him drinks. The other, melancholy, hates his father and wishes to die, but once he is dead, McGlue is adrift with no one to take care of him, and the world's anger at what they suspect him guilty of only makes his situation worse.

With all of this I do not want to suggest that McGlue "succeeds" while Coyote "fails."

Let us take that both books were published as prizewinners and allow them each the grace of considering that success, whereby what they win is according to external standard. They move through different means, and what each author does is just as intentional in achieving what end up feeling like very similar aims. As sympathetic as I am to arguments about how literary fiction is a genre like any other, it is rare I read two books that feel this similar to each other, even in instances where a newly discovered enthusiasm prompts investigating a single author's oeuvre.  The contrasts I am speaking of hover about similar cores, and a Burroughs-style cut-up would show the same spirit coursing through. Both are recognizably well written, although fairly forgettable once the reading is completed. No insights emerge from either so suddenly they slap a reader's face, nor in either case do we sink slowly into an abstract terrain lying past the plot. The mask of character is maintained, even as the faces such narrators present to the world begin to fray wildly. Each is consciously aware of hitting the points that are, in the most general way, the mark of just what literature is: A construction of memory and imagination determined by what is left out. One chooses the barest bones and the other has more meat to it, but bare bones are fine if one wishes to make a broth.

Coyote is perhaps predicated on such interchangeability: The premise of the story is that it is one we hear over and over again, and in the end, when the narrator suspects her husband, mention is made of such a scenario's statistical likelihood. Madness stands as each book's subject, that which runs the risk of ruining any individual's sense of self.

But beyond such broad parallels brought about by the generalities of literature is a coincidence that ends up seeming to speak volumes. In Coyote there is an Irish detective, who comes by the house, investigating, and the couple obsesses on. He is an Irish cop, suspected of drinking, and in Winnette's narrator's inability to recall his name he's dubbed Mick Something. In a work so short, such things that should be small end up seeming significant, and in such a moment these books seem like satellites of each other, where an orbiting sun casts the shadows of one onto the other each in their own time. One book takes as its subject what another book finds incidental and makes a joke of, then the new day dawns and the joking book seems the smaller.

Coyote by Colin Winnette
Les Figues Press
ISBN: 978-1934254561
96 pages

McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh
Fence Books
ISBN: 978-1934200858
144 pages