I’ve read such positive reviews of Elizabeth McCracken’s fiction and enjoy her engaging Twitter account so much, that I’ve been very eager to read her writing for quite some time. “Thunderstruck” is a collection of short stories which is vibrantly alive and demands the reader’s attention. If I were to hazard a comparison, her fiction is as inventive as AL Kennedy’s whose story collection All the Rage I reviewed earlier this year. It’s a cliché but the language and metaphors McCracken uses are really so refreshing that they make the reader re-view the world. There is also an absurdist tinge to her fiction (informed no doubt from authors like Ionesco who is referenced in one story) which is a form of writing that really thrills me. The stories are full of engaging, quirky characters who chaotically navigate through the narratives in ways which surprise and left me thinking about their meaning long after.
Many of the stories contain an unsettling edge as if chaos and violence lurks beneath the surface of ordinary physical objects. A suitcase falling over is likened to an animal collapsing in death. “Rubber bands in every drawer and braceleting every doorknob – why were old rubber bands so upsetting?” The physical world is imbued with feelings giving it a life of its own. Animals are also burdened by the sensibilities of humans who keep them. The emotional life of fish is speculated upon as thus: “if the fish were unhappy, we couldn’t tell. Maybe they wept in the terrible privacy of their tank.” In the mercenary environment of these narratives there is no subliminal desire for the characters. Everything is brought to the forefront by the narrator in a way that is both bewitching and startling. An uptight children’s librarian aggressively confronts the innocent sibling of a suspected murderer. A grandmother has an overwhelming urge to bite children. A mother wishes her daughter had died from a head injury rather than see her live incapacitated. Here the world is stripped down of façade. It’s raw and as fun-filled as it is fatal.
At the same time, there is a tremendous humour to this writing that often shades into the macabre. It celebrates the ridiculous of how strangely our desires pull us to do things we don’t understand. It assiduously points out the gravitational pull of the frivolous and petty over the profound. Often in these stories the ego feeds into people’s reactions to events – especially events that shouldn’t be about them like someone dying or helping an abandoned boy try to find his mother who has disappeared. The writing shows how we are terminally invested in narratives of our own making. McCracken delights in playing with language as well. Meaning is stretched out so metaphors sometimes become the reality in these characters' lives. The narrative voice can slide between stances of being totally objective to the collective "we" to being firmly entrenched in a character’s consciousness to speaking directly to “you” the reader. Although this sometimes jars, it shows the world view presented to be malleable and open to multiple perspectives and interpretations. Is what you’re being told the author’s perspective, a character’s or your own? It can be read in multiple ways. And this, like all great writing, makes you want to read it again and again.