Reviews

Someone Is Missing in Elizabeth McCracken's 'Thunderstruck'

These stories, to borrow Carrie Fisher’s title, are postcards from the edge, a place McCracken’s creative heart has taken up residence.


Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Proce: $26.00
Publisher: Random House
Length: 240 pages
Author: Elizabeth McCracken
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-04
Amazon

Elizabeth McCracken’s first collection of short fiction since 1993 can be quantified by one word: loss. Four of the nine stories feature dead adults. Other stories feature abusive marriages, bankruptcy, alcoholism, missing persons, and a permanently brain-damaged 12-year-old girl.

An immensely cheering collection of work.

Despite the serious subject matter, McCracken’s writing here retains all the quirky humor and madcap intensity that made 1996’s The Giant’s House a nominee for the National Book Award. But of course, all is not joyous in Mudville.

In 2006 McCracken became very happily pregnant. She was living in Savary, France, with her husband in a rambling farmhouse that once housed unwedded pregnant teen girls. The couple nicknamed their unborn son Pudding. At nine months, Pudding died in utero. Autopsy results were inconclusive.

McCracken’s memoir of this experience, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, should top the list of Never Be Caught Reading This on Public Transit books, along with other tear-inducing heartbreakers like Ann Hood’s Comfort or the introduction to Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is the only book about a stillbirth, with humor in it, that you will ever read. This will not stop you from crying, however. That book concludes with the birth of son Gus, and the sentence "It’s a happy life---".

In revisiting An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination for this review, I realized I’d misunderstood that line. Preceding it, McCracken writes: “It’s a happy life, but someone is missing. It’s a happy life, and someone is missing.” (Italics author’s.)

“Thunderstruck” is an apt descriptor for McCracken’s state of mind for the collection of stories that is Thunderstruck. Much of the book borrows directly from McCracken’s experience of Europe, of Pudding’s death, of the ways life changes when one’s hopes depart and the bar lowers permanently.

The opening story, “Something Amazing”, introduces child ghost Missy Goodby. Neighborhood children love scaring one another with threats and sights of Missy, but Missy is interested only in haunting her mother, Joyce. Soon, though, there are newer, more interesting neighborhood stories to tell: those of the missing child Santos Mackers and his younger brother, Johnny.

“Property” borrows from McCracken’s life as an itinerant writer. Stony Badower, 39, is working as a cataloger in Europe when he is suddenly widowed. Bereft, he returns to the United States, to a rental home that proves disgustingly messy. After skirmishing with the landlord’s adult daughter, he manages to take ownership, only to learn he has disastrously misjudged the situation.

McCracken worked as a librarian, hilariously evidenced in The Giant’s House and here, in “Juliet”. Her recounting of the varieties of patrons, their behaviors and their library cards, is hilariously spot on, enough—should you possess that arcane object known as a library card—to make you wince. The story is also wrenching, for the Juliet of the title is murdered, leading to an ugly confrontation between the children’s librarian and a patron, leading in turn to the reference librarian telling the children’s librarian:

“You’ve done a terrible thing.”

The children’s librarian agrees. The reference librarian informs her that “everyone does”, but she is among the select that know their wrongs.

“The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs” is overrun with animals, human and otherwise. It sports eight bedrooms, is in France, and is unmanageable. Tony and his wife, Izzy, are bankrupt so, following French law, they have entrusted this mess to Tony’s alcoholic teenaged son, Malcolm. Malcolm, in a moment of clear thinking, has behaved reasonably and put the house up for sale. Tony, Izzy, the budgies, the dogs, the puppies, the kittens, and the African Grey Parrot are dumbfounded by this development, but the reader wants nothing more than to smack all of them over the head, then attack the place with a mop and bucket.

“Hungry” is excruciating. Ten-year-old Lisa is sent to spend the summer with her grandmother, Sylvie. Unbeknownst to Lisa, her dying father is about to be taken off a respirator. Oblivious as only preadolescents can be, Lisa happily gorges on all the foods her parents forbid, rapidly growing fat. Indulgent, grieving Sylvie hasn’t the heart to stop her.

In the title story, 12-year-old Helen is brought home by the police at midnight. Her parents are horrified to learn she’d been inhaling nitrous oxide at a party. Bewildered, they book a family trip to Paris. It begins idyllically Helen’s school French blooming into a useful, supple language. Helen herself adores France. She blossoms. Then one night the phone rings. Helen has slipped from her bed to a party, where she has fallen from a window. She hit her head. She will run away no more.

Thunderstruck’s stories, to borrow Carrie Fisher’s title, are postcards from the edge, a place McCracken’s creative heart has taken up residence. They are dark, sad, bitterly amusing. They also belie one of McCracken’s fears after Pudding’s death: that she would forget him. Pudding Harvey would be eight years old today. To read Thunderstruck is to realize this little boy is anything but forgotten.

8

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image