Reading: “Thunderstruck and Other Stories” by Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken

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I confess it: I am in love with Elizabeth McCracken.

Not my usual sort of love that results in flowers and candy and stalking and restraining orders; but the kind of love that is born of recognizing a like heart, a soul of such intense and exquisite grace and goodness that I cannot help but be awestruck and admiring, the kind of love that makes me want to be a better person so as to be worthy of the object of my affection.

I read the first eight pieces in Elizabeth McCracken’s nonet, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, in a bacchanalian daze of literary ecstasy, transported to rapture by their divine coalescence of intense emotion and inspired prose. These creations composed of universal truths writ simply and singular beauties born of the tragedy found all too often in those simple truths are mis-labeled; they are something beyond “stories” – I dub them “Exaltations.”

I stopped before the ninth. Weeks ago. Three reasons.

1) I did not want it to end. As long as I did not begin the title exaltation, then I would still have it to look forward to.

2) Being a book blogger would require that I write about the collection once I had finished reading it and I felt myself neither skilled nor hubristic enough to think I ought to write about an author as accomplished and gifted as Elizabeth McCracken.

3) I follow (well, honestly, stalk) Elizabeth McCracken on Twitter and when I was of late suffering another of my periodic extreme dysthymic  lows, within moments of my public lament, Ms. McCracken voiced concern and support. Such kindness and connection should probably preclude my writing about her work. However, I am not remunerated for my discussions of books. I write about literature only because I love it and only when I am moved.

So, today, I put on my Jane Bowles “indeed I am a writer even if I’m not writing” pantaloons, planted myself in a coffee shop on the theory that I’d be less likely to make a spectacle of myself, keening at my loss as I read the final of Elizabeth McCracken’s lovingly honed sentences alone in a caffeinated crowd of strangers, and I read the final and title exaltation in Thunderstruck.

I loved it. And, I am moved. Oh my, so very, very moved.

And so I began to write this recounting of my experience with the book; I don’t call what I do “reviewing” because it isn’t. It is appreciation. It is sharing my gratitude and thanks for inspired and inspiring and provoking and delighting creations. As I tried to find words to describe how Elizabeth McCracken had managed to capture the feeling of losing someone, of being left behind – all its sadness and never-ending-ness – and yet done so without being maudlin or mawkish or lachrymose, into my Twitter feed gushed the wailing outpouring of loss and sorrow and grief; Robin Williams is dead. A suicide.

Somehow, you see, this all connects – personally – to me. Because this collection is all about loss and absence and how those left behind deal with both, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live (to quote Ms. Didion) — and it was my speaking of self-harm, of creating an absence where I stand and Tweet that prompted kindness from Ms. McCracken, who has known such loss, much loss, terrible loss of her own and thus, was kind to me, and I read her, I follow her, and chose today of all days to finish Thunderstruck, and today was the day that Robin Williams chose not to go on saying “Yes, I will keep trying.” A choice I understand, a choice I have to determine whether or not – every day – to make, every day when the choice to keep going ought to feel like a victory but so often feels like a failure, a loss.

This collection, Thunderstruck and Other Stories, understands that choice, and all the other choices in line with and resulting from it. It is about going on in the face of seemingly insurmountable sorrows and absence; filling in the gaps. These are the stories of those gaps, or, rather, the exaltations.

I choose the word with some care; in its archaic use in alchemy, exaltation meant a purification and intensification through distillation, a refinement, and too, a state of extreme spiritual elevation, euphoria, approaching unity with the divine. Elizabeth McCracken distills the quotidian through seemingly casual observation; but there is nothing casual about it. Her vision is laser-like, her delineation of detail surgical in its precision. She limns the dimensions of sorrow and loss in breathtakingly moving prose, sentences of such musicality, sung through with a vulnerability that leaves the reader feeling almost an intruder, except, of course, in those instances where the indisputable, immutable honesty of the sorrow cuts to one’s own soul, an echo of one’s own loss, and re-opens wounds, wakens scars one carries – in which instances it seems as if Eliabeth McCracken has intruded upon one’s own secret place, made her way into your soul and turned iit inside out and onto the page.

I read this book and was taken back – again and again – to my own losses, my father, my aunt, and most recently, my sister. I was moved to write to Ms. McCracken mid-way through my first reading to say:

The paragraph on page 131 that begins with “A liar and a thief…” has more beauty depth emotion force content truth than most entire published novels. Your grasp of the solitude & eternal immediacy of loss is brilliant, heartbreaking, insightful, healing. Thank you a million times. Though we’ve never met, these stories strike me as if a dear friend had lived in my heart and told its story. Thank you. Thank you. Much admiration, respect, love even.

Here is that paragraph:

     A liar and a thief, poor kid, thought the Hi-Lo manager, and not very clever at either. No way was this little kid seventeen. Twelve, tops. The Hi-Lo manager himself was forty-four years old, bald, and pink, with a head dented like the cans in his store and an ex-wife he still loved, who still loved him, though she had remarried and had a baby. When the baby grew up, he thought, she’d divorce her husband, the fake husband, the shadow husband, and remarry him. It was the only thing that kept him in this town, where she lived; it was the only thing that kept him on this earth. She’d been his first and only girlfriend. If I’m not married when I’m forty, he’d told himself at twenty-seven, before he’d met her, I’ll kill myself. As it turned out, he wasn’t married at forty but he had been. Some days he wondered if he were breaking a vow with himself. At the Hi-Lo he wore a short-sleeve shirt and a red knot necktie and an engraved name tag that said VAL.

Those few hundred words tell a life story; many life stories. Every detail Elizabeth McCracken chooses to expose to the light seems like a whispered piece of gossip that would end up in a tabloid after the fellow kidnapped his ex and held her in his basement. It speaks to his delusion, it speaks to his sorrow, it speaks to the piece of soul in each of us that mourns the loss of love, opportunity, might have been, might have gone, and hangs on to any rationale for those failures of self and spirit. How many of us have not loved again, or loved as fully as we might because we carry the delusion of a lost love that should be, will be, could be, is, somehow even though it is not and never will be?

That’s an immutable, incontrovertible, universal truth and experience and Elizabeth McCracken captures it. That is her genius. This book (and all of her work) is filled with just this sort of insight and near-psychic grasp of the lives we all lead, day to day.

She is a literary alchemist, distilling the experiences of our lives into melodies of truth, told with great rhythm and beauty, resulting for the reader in the euphoria of recognition of ourselves; “Yes, I have felt that, that is what I am feeling, THANK YOU for telling our stories.”

Yes, thank you Elizabeth McCracken for telling our stories, your stories, with such grace, painting those places where we all unite with that intangible, untouchable, unknowable else with such divinity. Thank you fur turning your own soul inside out and putting it on the page, time and again, so that we might all benefit – not just from your writing, but from your knowing.

Dear friends, do yourself a favor, read this book. You will be unable to resist then reading Elizabeth McCracken’s backlist, and, following her on Twitter where she has one of the most amusing and fascinating feeds.

Goodnight and bless you my dears. Hug someone, please.

I bought Thunderstruck & Other Stories at my favorite independent bookstore, THE CURIOUS IGUANA (click HERE) and SO SHOULD YOU!



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