Thunderstruck and other stories by Elizabeth McCracken; book review

 

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The Independent Culture

“The dead live on in the homeliest of ways,” we’re told in the opening story in this powerful collection – Elizabeth McCracken’s first fiction in 13 years. “They’re listed in the phone book. They get mail. Their wigs rest on Styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.” Grief and loss are here on every page, watermarked through the paper. Parents lose children, a child loses his parent, a woman loses a love that might not seem worth having in the first place. “It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me that it wasn’t love.” If, as Elizabeth Bishop wrote, the art of losing isn’t hard to master, then McCracken’s characters are reluctant experts.

We see how people do and don’t recover from grief. Initially, loss distorts perceptions, and a bereaved mother sees five-year-old girls everywhere. “Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours.” Then in “Property”, as time passes a widower finds he can begin to direct his attention outward. “He could act as though he were not an insane person with one single thought.”

These stories paint sorrow in vigorous colours; they’re full of mad life. In “Some Terpsichore”, the narrator meets a man whose “hair looked like it had been combed with a piece of buttered toast” and who plays “a piano that looked as though it had been through a house fire”. This gift of McCracken’s for off-kilter details is occasionally overworked: in the weakest story, “The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs”, sadness is muted by whimsy (such as a parrot with a bad French accent).

This is a book with emotional pull, where moments of discovery turn the characters’ lives around. The singer in “Some Terpsichore” gets a request to include her work in a compilation called “Songs from Mars: Eccentrics and their Music”. In “Hungry”, a minder returning a child to her grandmother says brightly: “So we had a little spank, and now we’re friends again.” In “Juliet”, when townsfolk hear of a murder (“We hoped for two things: that we did not know the victim and that the murderer did”), the story moves to a deeper register, exploring the human need for knowledge and connection.

At times the weight of grief becomes so great that an authorial voice breaks through the narrative. It says that if life is full of pain, some of which seems unendurable, songs from Earth like these can help us see how others make it through. “Happiness was a narrow tank,” concludes the title story. “You had to make sure you cleared the lip.”

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