Written by Jené Gutierrez
“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” – Thomas King
“Let it go” is common advice that we are often told to put into practice, usually after something or someone has been lost. Though meant to decrease our suffering, this simplistic conception of how to manage loss and grief does not account for the near impossibility of this task, for everything that is lost is returned to or stays with us in a myriad of ways. Or, as the narrator in “Something Amazing” explains, “Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours.”
Each of Elizabeth McCracken’s stories in her newest collection, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, tells a different tale, but they all illustrate universal themes about our relationships and how our stories hold our love and losses. McCracken, with humor and intellect, illuminates the fact that nothing is ever truly lost, but lives on through our stories and the stories of others that inevitably intersect with and are informed by our own. It is through the knowledge of other stories and the way they intersect with our own that we come to a deeper understanding of our entwined narratives, reminding us that the stories we tell ourselves are not the same stories told by others.
Most of McCracken’s humor emerges out of her controlled voice, the description of characters and surroundings that ring absurdly familiar, points of recognition in the text that arise out of observations of the seemingly mundane. In “Property,” McCracken’s description of a home and its detritus are peppered with a humorous, funny-because-it’s-true familiarity. While cleaning, a man finds old, sticky spices in the kitchen, “the stubby plastic kind with the red tops;” these same spices familiarly seem to thrive in the near-abandoned places I’ve lived as well--the ubiquity of these specific spices spans all homes. By the end of the story, the man discovers that the owner’s home is a commemoration of a life; its belongings hold the weight of a love and loss that the man had not experienced, but feels a familiarity to in the loss of his wife, and the weight of the belongings of hers he still carries.
In her strange, dark love story, “Some Terpsichore,” McCracken writes of harmony and discord in a relationship, offering a breathtaking meditation on the definition of love:
It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me that it wasn’t love. Love is not oxygen, though many songwriters will tell you that it is; it is not a chemical substance that is either definitively present or absent; it cannot be reduced to its parts. It is not like a flower, or an animal, or anything that you will ever be able to recognize when you see it. Love is food. That’s all. Neither better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible. But to say--as people will--that wasn’t love. As though that makes you feel better! Well it might not have been nourishing but it sustained me for a while.
Though the relationship between the couple is strained, the narrator finds it hard to leave, explaining that it wasn’t love or the fear of being alone that kept her there, but “…it was wanting to know the end of the story, and wanting the end to be happy.” And though love and the prospect of loss binds us to others, in this narrative, it’s a craving for story, wanting to satisfy a curiosity about how this life could play out that commits the narrator. Perhaps we could then ask, isn’t dedication to a story and its unfolding--personal or otherwise--a kind of love itself?
Nowhere is it more apparent that one’s story is not just one’s own than in the way our media responds to mass killings. The stories of victims are always subsumed by the singular story of the killer or killers--who they are, their motivations, psychological makeup, and childhood. The things they’ve written and said become objects of scrutiny, evidence of a captivating, if tragic, story that becomes part of the culture’s larger narrative. In “Juliet,” McCracken tells the story of a murdered young woman from the perspective of the town’s librarians--individuals who are surrounded by walls of stories on a daily basis. The librarians refer to the young woman as “Juliet” because she reminds them of the title character in Shakespeare’s play. Here, the title itself already contains a whole other story. This woman’s death resonates throughout the town, affecting many people in the process, including the accused killer. Yet the narrator explains that the murder becomes known as “The Tommy Mason Case,” not “The Suzanne Cunningham Murder;” this woman’s story is subsumed by the story of the killer. The story ends with the children’s librarian--Suzanne’s closest friend at the library--confronting the accused murderer’s sister about the accused killer, resulting in an emotional intersection of these two women’s stories. This narrative framework demonstrates the ineluctability of stories crossing paths and creating new loves and losses that carry the previous ones along with them, and McCracken executes this idea candidly, with careful attention to the transformation of her characters.
As a man who will be remembered the way his “friend” documented him, and not as he was in the flesh, Peter of “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey” comes to a couple of poignant realizations:
“There wasn’t a man in the world smart enough to see his own subtext.”
“Only in person can you be larger than life. On a television screen, you’re cropped, alone: a buffoon.”
Peter, his death on the horizon, realizes that as a subject of a successful documentary, he leaves behind the legacy of a story told by someone else; the rest of his life has been subsumed by the images and words a friend captured and contexualized years ago, some of which portray him in an unsavory light. At the end of his life, Peter must accept that his story is out of his control, that it belongs to the web of stories that contains it.
And this is McCracken’s impressive accomplishment: her appeal to the only refuge we have when all is said and seemingly over, the refuge of stories that hold our love and loss, and the humor and heart that is necessary to sustain them. Perhaps our most defining experiences are the relationships we have to each other and ourselves, the threads of love and loss that tie this all together, and the acceptance of our stories as having lives of their own, entities of which we are a part, but ultimately have no control over. Each story in Thunderstruck & Other Stories demonstrates this fundamental truth with humor and tact, and McCracken approaches this delicate, universal subject matter with style and heart.