What is life made of? What is left when it falls apart? In her first collection of short stories in 20 years, Elizabeth McCracken answers these questions, and the results are not always pretty.
People die and their treasured keepsakes are lost. Other people disappear, leaving behind questions that can never be answered, while still others are found — rescued, even — but, decades later, are revealed to have misunderstood their rescuer’s benevolence.
Life is random, and McCracken, author of the National Book Award finalist novel “The Giant’s House,” focuses on the losing side, though her meticulous prose always salvages some beauty from the wreckage.
Take, for example, the case of Stony Badower, the bereaved narrator of “Property.” After the unexpected death of his young wife, Badower makes the move they had planned together but finds the new rental cluttered and filthy.
After much effort, he cleans and refurbishes the space, only to realize in the story’s final moments that the mess he’d cleared away held someone else’s dear memories. The realization amplifies his own loss: “If Pamela had been with him . . . she would have known,” he believes. “She would have seen the pieces of key chain and clucked over the dirty rug, and told him the whole story.”
A key chain, a rug: Details like these are what make these nine stories shine.
Although Badower does not see their importance until after his lease ends, to readers it will be apparent throughout these tales as these specifics give the overall melancholy of this collection concrete forms.
A “neurotic bunny” kept in the children’s room of a library where an employee will soon be in mourning “eyed her with its usual unhappiness.” A “pair of red and white espadrilles that had run in the rain” showcase a girl’s last days of unselfconsciousness before a horrible loss. As painstaking as a watchmaker, McCracken disassembles life down to its smallest parts, focusing on the bits and pieces that define us.
People, too, are captured as objects or fragments, smaller than their larger selves. “The grandmother was a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person” begins one story. In another, a woman looking back on a former lover sees “a 1930s animated character: the black pie-cut eyes, white gloved hands held flat against the background.”
While this objectification should diminish them, it has the effect of showing them to us anew — giving us a fresh view of their ongoing tragedies.
For these stories are overwhelmingly sad. A relationship that began with the ethereal sound of a saw being played — “the voice of a beautiful toothache” — ends with disillusionment and pain: “Did you realize that people were laughing at you?”
Children and adults run away, either never to be found or to die horribly in ways only suggested by McCracken: “Santos even now is in terrible trouble. Santos, miles away, is calling for her.”
In “Thunderstruck,” the title story and the longest in this collection, a disappearance is only a precursor. When a preteen slips out of the house, she sets her family on a journey from which none of them will ever really return.
As the author notes in a different story: “The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. 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.”
This is certainly true of this collection. Shoes, as well as key chains, a rug, and a lusterware duck haunt the lives of characters. That so many of these characters will themselves end up lost, missing, or inexorably changed over the course of these nine beautifully wrought mini-dramas comes to seem inevitable. For McCracken, the dead are in the details.