Leave it to Elizabeth McCracken to refresh the genre of the parental tribute.
This book is not a memoir — or at least not a straightforward memoir — because McCracken promised her fiercely private mother, who hated memoirs and especially memoirs about dead parents, that she would never write about her. In fact, the book’s frontispiece reproduces the inscription McCracken purportedly wrote to her mother on her very first book, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry: “For Mom — whose life history I will continue to mine, but will never — no matter what she or anybody else thinks — appear as a character in my work, being too good for the likes of me and my characters.” It is dated Mother’s Day, 1993.
And here we are, not quite 30 years later, reading about a reasonable facsimile of McCracken’s mother in a “novel” in which the narrator — a short, stout unnamed writer who is not the hero of this book — spends a day alone in London during a heat wave in August 2019, “the summer before the world stopped. “It’s ten months since her mother died, and three years since their last trip to London together.” What’s she doing there? “I was trying to decide what I thought about my life.”
And here’s how McCracken, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who teaches fiction at the University of Texas at Austin, advises would-be memoirists to circumvent compunctions about dealing with private, personal material: “Perhaps you fear writing a memoir, reasonably. Invent a single man and call your book a novel. The freedom one fictional man grants you is immeasurable.” She tells us this after introducing a “gentle, blinky Englishman named Trevor” who checks her into her small hotel in Clerkenwell.
There’s freedom, too, in making her narrator an only child who is unmarried and childless. As she eventually acknowledges, McCracken, the author of this book but not, for the most part, its narrator, has a brother, a husband (writer Edward Carey), and two children. She prefers writing fiction, where she’s safely out of the picture: “Applying any words to who I am feels like a straight pin aimed at my insect self.”
Other tips: McCracken’s narrator reminds readers not to trust writers who give out advice but adds, “If you want to write a memoir without writing a memoir, go ahead and call it something else. Let other people argue about it. Arguing with yourself or the dead will get you nowhere.”
So The Hero of This Book is a hall of mirrors, a lightly fictionalized memoir that interrogates genre and the act of writing even as it strives to conjure up McCracken’s beloved mother in all her splendid idiosyncrasy in order to prevent her from “evanescing.” It features the snappy prose we’ve come to love in inventive novels like The Giant’s House and Bowlaway, and in McCracken’s most recent collection of profoundly hilarious stories, The Souvenir Museum.
“I have no interest in ordinary people, having met so few of them in my life,” McCracken’s narrator tells us upfront, and adds, “Your family is the first novel that you know.” Her wonderfully odd parents were “a sight gag,” she writes, her father 6’3″ with a stutter and a temper; her mother, under five feet with wild dark hair and eyebrows, ambulated with canes and determination, hobbled by cerebral palsy and failed surgeries. Both parents were highly educated and had long careers at Boston University, but they were terrible with money. They were also hoarders who accumulated antiques and encyclopedias and piles of junk, letting their Massachusetts home fall into alarming squalor. “Opposite in every way but their bad habits, which is the secret to a happy marriage and also the makings of the catastrophe,” she comments.
Her mother grew up “disabled and Jewish in small-town Iowa,” yet would not be cowed. Her “good cheer was an engine that would burn you if you tried to touch it, hoping to switch it off.” She was a fun crank, firm in her opinions — including her belief that “psychotherapy was like trying to fix a motor while it was still running.”
By McCracken’s own admission, not much happens in this book. The narrator wanders around London, visiting the Tate Britain, the London Eye, and a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I kept walking. It’s not much of a plot. As a fictional character I do very little of consequence, even though as a writer my favorite thing about fiction is its ability to anatomize consequence.”
Don’t be fooled for a minute. This layered book is packed with consequence, with love, with funny observations, with reflections on writing and the risks of hurting yourself and others. “I don’t think writing is that hard, as long as you’re comfortable with failure on every single level,” McCracken comments with typical wit.
“Why do I write?” her narrator asks. “To try to get human beings on a page without the use of vivisection or preservatives or a spiritualist’s props, to make them seem lively still.”
Mission accomplished. Natalie Jacobson McCracken, 1935-2018, comes alive as a wonderful hero of this book — and so does her daughter for writing it.