Elizabeth McCracken’s latest is a short story collection that centers on the theme of loss. These are, often, losses of loved ones and the stories explore how people cope in various ways with the resulting grief and loneliness. The people impacted are beyond the immediate family, showing how we are all part of a larger whole than we might comprehend.
Having started her writing career with a short story collection, ‘Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry?’ in 1994 (one that, reportedly, allowed her to give up her librarian career and take up writing as a profession), she has also given us two novels (‘The Giant’s House’, a National Books Award finalist in 1996; ‘Niagara Falls All Over Again‘ in 2001) and a memoir (‘An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination’ in 2008).
McCracken is known for her signature style — strong openings and endings, a quirky way of looking at the world, and a wit that shines through even in the darkest moments. And, this new collection showcases all of that and then some. Her ability to balance the deep sadness in her characters with a well-timed and just-right irony makes the stories all the more affecting. Also, the way she chooses this detail over that, or one impression over another make her craft all the more admirable.
The first and last stories are probably the most haunting. The first, ‘Something Amazing’, even starts with a ghostly opening:
Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees. That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye.
No, this isn’t a horror story, but, indeed, the ghost of this dead child haunts her mother throughout, even through a bedroom door that’s been papered and painted over — hidden, but not entirely invisible or forgotten or gone. And, when another family with two little boys moves into the neighborhood, the tectonic plates shift somewhat. McCracken deftly avoids giving us the predictable ending here (and, I won’t give it away because you should read it).
‘Property’, which was selected by Geraldine Brooks for ‘The Best American Short Stories 2011’, is about a husband who loses his wife rather suddenly and has to deal with moving into a house they were to live in together. How he copes with the tawdry physical objects (gathered lovingly by his landlady over the years as a way to hold on to her own memories of people and times gone) crowding his lonely life are both somewhat funny and also rather touching. In an interview elsewhere, McCracken described how many of the physical details came from her personal experiences and, yes, fury.
In “Property,” none of the characters are based on any real people, but the house is very much the house that I moved into in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. I slightly fudged some details because the people whose house we rented were not artists, they were writers.
But other than that, every single disgusting detail of that story is absolutely autobiographical. I did very much write it because I was mad [laughs].
The people who owned the house were very sweet and lovely people. It would have been incorrect to write a story that was based on them. Even though I was ticked off, that really would not have been fair. So I poured all my fury into the details of the house.
‘Some Terpsichore’ is a rather odd little story about a pair of lovers who, while appearing to be just right for each other with their individual quirks and behaviors, are not really good for each other. It’s one of those stories where you can’t decide who you’re more sad for. Their weird music-making, fighting and eventual separation leaves the woman with a deep loneliness that’s as sharp as the edge of a saw. And, you’ll have to read the rest to understand that allusion.
‘Juliet’ is the oldest story in the book, written in the mid-90s, when McCracken was circulation desk chief at the Somerville Public Library. And, it is also set mostly in a library with some rather witty and wry observations about working in one. A young woman is murdered and a young local man is suspected. There are two losses here, impacting the lives of both the library people and a boy’s family living on tenterhooks and in semi-isolation as they wait for his innocence to be proved.
‘The House of Two Three-legged Dogs’ is set in France, a place that McCracken is very familiar with, as readers of her memoir will know. The descriptions of the animal menagerie that lives in this particular house are so well-drawn that you can almost hear them. Especially Clothilde, the parrot who speaks French. Though no one is dead or murdered, there is a loss of a son and the story shows us how his parents attempt to cope with that, filling their lives with more and more rescued animals.
‘Hungry’ has one of the best descriptions of a grandmother ever for its opening.
The grandmother was a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted.
The story is about a mother coping with the imminent loss of a hospitalized son, while taking care of that son’s daughter. And, that daughter, though not been told explicitly of her father’s possible death, deals with her loneliness in her own way — through food, public performances, etc. Of all the people in these stories that deal with losses, the children, uncomprehending yet intuitive, give the most poignant moments.
‘The Lost and Found Department of Greater Boston’ also has a child dealing with the loss of his mother. She disappears, leaving him to a negligent grandfather. His hunger drives him to steal and he encounters the Manager of the local grocery store. That single encounter changes the courses of both their lives and, years later, when they meet again, they have entirely different memories of it. A single loss creating, once again, unimaginable ripples across time and space.
‘Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey’ is the story of the titular characters — their youthful friendship and subsequent estrangement. They don’t meet again in the story, but Elroy, through a meeting with Casey’s wife and children and through reminiscences, manages to convey a very palpable sense that is a mixture of loss, loneliness and anger, magnified as it is by his knowledge of his own impending death. And, rather than a regret, there is a sort of disgust at the immense waste of it all.
The final story, ‘Thunderstruck’ is the longest in the collection. A family moves from the US to Paris, France, for an extended vacation. The older daughter, rebellious and wayward, has an accident. Most of the story is about the parents trying to figure out ways to comprehend what’s happening as the daughter lies in vegetative state in a French hospital. The father’s growing hopes juxtaposed against the mother’s painful acceptance creates or surfaces a conflict in their own relationship, slowly widening a chasm between them. To the end, though, the father remains wishful.
He looked at his wife, whom he loved, whom he looked forward to convincing, and felt as though he were diving headfirst into happiness. It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.
McCracken’s writing is no perilous circus act. It is a craft honed in the tradition of le mot juste, and galvanized by an innate talent for presenting the truth, which is always like quicksilver — mutable and difficult to contain in the varied layers of emotions that loss can trigger.
These stories show us the many shapes and spaces that grief and loneliness take in our lives. I’m not suggesting that, on reading them, these things will start to make complete sense in real life. Rather, such well-written stories manage to, without our quite knowing it, slightly rewire our inner circuitry so that we, too, can muster up the courage to explore the truth of loss in our own lives.