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October 2022 Issue [Reviews]

Against Aboutness

On Elizabeth McCracken’s irreducible fiction
Collage by Katherine Streeter

Collage by Katherine Streeter


Against Aboutness

On Elizabeth McCracken’s irreducible fiction

Discussed in this essay:

The Hero of This Book, by Elizabeth McCracken. Ecco. 224 pages. $26.99

In 1996, upon my arrival in the United States, I attended a university orientation for international students, which began with the organizer asking us to stand and face what she said was the east. Orientation, she explained, came from the word orient. To be able to tell east from west, north from south, was the first step to finding one’s way in a new country.

This memory returned while I was reading Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, The Hero of This Book, when the narrator, an American writer visiting London, is momentarily lost on a Sunday morning, until she hears the bells of St. Paul’s. “I came around the corner and there was the cathedral, as startling as an elk in the road.” I wonder if this is the first time that St. Paul’s has been compared to an elk. Some writers describe human habitats eloquently; others write about nature with wisdom. McCracken sees the elk in the middle of London, an image that perfectly encapsulates the essence of her fiction: seemingly nonsensical and yet making perfect sense. The world, strange in the first place, is often made stranger by our minds. McCracken captures the twilight zone between consciousness and subconsciousness, where intuitions are not yet filed away, impulses not yet stifled.

A church spire, a McDonald’s sign, a movie theater marquee—in a twentieth-century manual for international students, these were given as useful landmarks to remember. Nowadays, it takes less outward looking to orient oneself: an app will do.

A while ago, I was shocked to hear some aspiring writers discuss a story by first stating the aboutness of the work. To me, aboutness seems a concern for propagandists and influencers. Yet plenty of books are equipped with a GPS system of aboutness: you will be delivered to your destination, without the danger of going astray, without the need to detour. Many writers face the demand for such a system. Once, a writer told an editor of mine that I was paying the wrong kind of attention in a novel, to the anecdotal lives of my characters instead of the oppressive political system in China. So, the aboutness of one’s work is determined by one’s biography: if you’re from China, you’d better write about the evil system; if you’re an expat (as the writer was), you can write about the humanness of your characters, with Chinese culture and politics as the backdrop.

I could easily see McCracken’s new book saddled with one of those systems: this is a novel about loss and grief; a novel about resilience and renewal; a novel about a mother-daughter relationship; a novel about writing. These descriptions depict the book the way I was taught to draw a bird in kindergarten: a circle for the head, an oval for the body, two triangles for the wings. But McCracken is one of those fleet-footed writers who will never be trapped, or even reliably tracked, by aboutness.

Readers new to McCracken can find information online: publications (three collections of stories, four novels, and a memoir), awards (numerous), academic and professional engagements, and a personal tragedy (her first child was stillborn, an experience recounted in her memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination). But these facts only make an incidental biography. “My understanding of my own soul is preliterate,” says the narrator of The Hero of This Book, unwilling to submit to any identifier. “Wife, daughter, mother, friend, some people write in their social-media biographies. Why on earth? Applying any words to who I am feels like a straight pin aimed at my insect self. I won’t have it. I can’t do it.”

A definitive identity (for a writer) or a pronounced aboutness (for a book) would place them in a specimen case. Here, marvel at the colors and patterns on this butterfly’s wings; count its legs and antennae; call it a butterfly, but will you see the shadow of its wings when it flitters past you on a sun-dappled porch?

McCracken’s entire career has been an act against butterfly-pinning. Say she writes about women’s lives—it ought to be safe to attribute that to a female author, ought it not?—and there, stepping out of her novel Niagara Falls All Over Again, are two men who have made their fame as a vaudeville team. After they part ways, the narrator suffers a kind of phantom pain for forty years. A severed connection is like an amputated limb, and the novel remains one of the most touching books about friendship between men. Say she writes about New England, where two of her novels, The Giant’s House and Bowlaway, are set, but New England is only one setting in her fiction; others include the West Coast, the Midwest, Texas, England, Ireland, and continental Europe. Say she writes about grief and loss, but those words are like perennial borders in any literary garden: Who hasn’t experienced grief and loss? What fiction is not about them?

Perhaps a more straightforward way to describe McCracken’s work is by considering what she doesn’t write about: a post-apocalyptic world. Her fiction is strictly pre-apocalyptic. “This is the summer before the world stopped.” Thus opens The Hero of This Book. The novel is set in 2019, shortly after the death of the narrator’s mother. Unmoored from the everydayness of life and suspended in an inarticulable time—as we often are, by travel, by the death of someone close—the narrator walks around London over the course of a day, watching, eavesdropping, and occasionally meeting strangers. None of them is her mother, yet all are capable of bringing her mother to mind: such is the monopolizing power of death.

Fiction set in a pre-apocalyptic time tends to share a vague label: realism, which seems to be under constant attack, especially from those who claim it is a product of MFA programs. (Surely realism existed in the time of cave people?) The narrator of The Hero of This Book, a writer and also a teacher of writing, offers her own withering description of a certain kind of realism:

written mostly in scene, in first or third person, attached to a single point of view, lightly populated, nothing out of the ordinary, mostly inside a house, probably in a kitchen, in which the exact location and temperature of every beverage is known—the beer warm, the coffee cold. You could write this story, and nothing would be wrong with it. Not a thing untoward. Not a thing out of place. But would you recognize it in your dreams?

Would you recognize it in your dreams? This is a question all writers should ask themselves. Since McCracken’s novel is in part a contemplation on fiction writing, I’ll take the liberty of proposing that, instead of labels such as realistic or speculative, historical or contemporary, autobiographical or epic; instead of subject matters, themes, plots, or motifs (aboutness be damned!), we should divide fiction into four subsets, using conceivability and perceptibility as standards.

Subset one: narratives of the perceptible and the conceivable. Here we have warm beer and cold coffee, banged doors and slammed brakes, expressions and gestures that actors routinely perform onscreen. In this subset I would also include—apology to some wonderful writers—autofiction. “A near and mere transcript of life,” a character in a McCracken story, from her most recent collection, The Souvenir Museum, thinks while reading a book that would surely fall into this subset, finding it “simultaneously fascinating and boring.” Don’t get me wrong: the perceptible and the conceivable can make interesting fiction; some transcripts of some lives are great reading.

Subset two: narratives of the imperceptible and the inconceivable. One day Gregor Samsa finds himself metamorphosed into a bug in a computer system that rules the universe; in order to save the world, Samsa sacrifices his uniqueness and makes infinite copies of himself; together they defeat the evil tyrant; then, the one and only Samsa wakes up; the adventure is a dream, and he happens to have fallen asleep on top of a Kafka book. This can play out in different variations, but you get the gist. Chances are you’ve read fiction like this. That a writer has taken the effort to conceive it and make it legible won’t change its placement. Sometimes such fiction is called Kafkaesque: nothing is more Kafkaesque than describing a mediocre creation with that adjective.

Subset three: narratives of the perceptible and yet the inconceivable. Astonishing stories happen, not strictly in fiction. Open a newspaper and you’ll find plenty of stories that appear inconceivable. Saying “I don’t believe it” won’t make a difference: reality challenging our imagination tends to lead to an act of disbelief, which is akin to self-blinding. This is why it feels to me as though Gogol’s Dead Souls were written for our time—it doesn’t matter when it was written. (We don’t read Dead Souls to understand imperial Russia just as we don’t read Hamlet to understand Denmark.) This subset deserves a separate essay. Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia E. Butler, and Ling Ma would fit nicely here.

Subset four: narratives of the conceivable and yet the imperceptible. Like Elizabeth Bowen and Penelope Fitzgerald before her, McCracken is good at capturing those shadowy impressions and fleeting thoughts at the corner of the mind’s eye, leaving the reader with a sensation of reliving something, though whether it’s the past or the future one cannot be certain. Has her work brought us back to long-buried memories, or to anticipations and imaginations that we have yet to articulate?

Reading McCracken’s fiction, I often fall into a kind of conversation that does not happen in life, as though the characters and I have met mid-thought: no need for small talk; no need to anchor ourselves in time or space. A character traveling to Legoland observes that “the world, like Lego, was solid and mutable, both.” How mutable and how solid does the world have to be to sustain you and me? I ask. It’s never solid enough, the character replies; and it’s never mutable enough. “When you were a child you believed yourself special, deserving, and every piece of evidence to the contrary broke your heart. As an adult, the same was true,” says a narrator in another story. Such a devastating and enduring truth, and yet why do we still wish, hope, even expect, a different scenario? To that question of mine McCracken’s narrator answers: How else do we live, if not to continue to wish, hope, and expect? A man who has lost a young nephew to suicide

felt he should lock up his own sorrow. There was something in him that always deferred to other people in this way, he measured his own grief and found it smaller, something that could be attended later; he had a cactus soul, he sometimes thought—it needed water, too, but it could wait.

I cannot be the only cactus soul who quavers, thunderstruck by the gratitude of being understood and by the unease of being exposed.

McCracken has a talent for making the imperceptible within the characters just perceptible—not explicit or explicable, those are deadly traps for characters. A character “wanted love so badly the longing felt like organ failure.” Another “was phobic about embarrassment. That’s what the death certificate would cite under cause: embarrassment, congenital and chronic.” A woman’s jealousy “flared up only occasionally, a trick knee. Lumbago, whatever lumbago was. Spiritual arthritis.” Never interested in offering a mere transcript of life, McCracken sets herself the task of annotating her characters’ minds—the hidden, the nonsensical, the ineffable—with a particular sense of humor, a mixture of awe, irony, tenderness, and detachment. A man taking a day trip to see puffins on a Scottish island observes:

Puffins, dozens of them, so many you couldn’t count, or see them as individuals; they constituted mere puffinosity. . . . The puffins were endearing and ridiculous, with expressions that suggested they thought the same of you, coming all this way to gawk at puffins.

A single woman, at peace with her marital state, reflects: “The time that living with another person took up! The small talk! The politeness! Life alone was banal, too, but at least the banality wasn’t narrated.” A couple, reacting differently to the death of a very old cat, suddenly understand a fundamental difference that separates yet reunites them: “This was how they might mourn each other, she clear-eyed, striding forward; he weeping and inarticulate. It was what each would have wanted of the other.”

A reader, catching a glimpse of their own hidden self in McCracken’s characters, experiences a moment of liberated feeling, as though they have gained a new status, become smarter, more honest, more courageous. Such an illusion, one sees immediately, comes from the realization that one’s self has just paraded nakedly onto a stage.

The title of McCracken’s latest novel, The Hero of This Book, is as deceptively memorable as Thomas Hardy’s Life’s Little Ironies. What book doesn’t have a hero or heroine? What life doesn’t contain some weedy ironies? At the center of the novel is a mother, headstrong, witty, larger than life. I use this not as a cliché but a meaningful description: she has decided not to be constrained by her body, which is “four foot eleven and three-quarter inches” tall.

Before the novel begins, there is a reproduction of the title page of McCracken’s first collection, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, which bears a dedication to her mother:

For mom—whose life history I will continue to mine, but who 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.

Interpret this image any way you want, but do not call the book a work of autofiction. True, the novel’s narrator resembles McCracken in some respects, and the narrator’s mother, her own. But such resemblances exist merely on paper, pun intended. The novel gives us a few moments with the narrator’s father, but not much with her sibling. The novel provides some knowledge of her extended family—grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins—but her husband and children, briefly mentioned as an essential part of her life, are kept entirely out of the book. Anyone mistaking the novel for autofiction (or worse, memoir) may protest: the narrator’s past and present are not revealed in enough detail for the readers to savor or to judge. To that, the narrator answers: “I don’t write autofiction. I don’t even know what it is, though it sounds like it might be written by a robot, or a kiosk, or a European.”

Autofiction without autobiography: What does that make? It’s a simple subtraction. Take auto out: this is a work of fiction.

“I have no interest in ordinary people, having met so few of them in my life,” states the narrator of The Hero of This Book. McCracken’s characters are self-proclaimed spinsters and befuddled widowers; orphans old and young (including some self-orphaned); parents of dead children and parents of lost children; second-rate performers with first-rate dreams; hoarders of objects and relationships; transients who have found permanency. They are imperfect men and women, and perfectly strange children. Their ancestors are Falstaff and Yorick, Betsey Trotwood and Miss Havisham. Their grandparents and parents, uncles and aunts live in the fiction of Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Grace Paley. They are not characters who wait for the coffee to turn cold or the beer to turn warm, who aspire to build a life as respectful and forgettable as business attire. They are rash and odd—in the way that anyone not toeing the line is often deemed to be. They tend to subscribe to a particular kind of humor: irrelevant and irreverent, which is to partially mask their arguments with the world, all highly relevant.

McCracken’s characters, homo sapiens extraordinaire, are regularly described as quirky. (“Quirky, somebody once called my mother,” says the novel’s narrator. “What a colossally condescending word: I hate it. It means you’ve decided that you don’t have to take that person seriously.”) Sometimes McCracken the writer is called quirky. All adjectives are judgmental—attached to an adjective is a set of standards. To call a writer or a character quirky indicates a scale between normalcy and strangeness. Who installs and maintains these standards? Perhaps those who are ready to discard intuitions and impulses as an unwieldy, messy part of life, and those who equate the aboutness of literature to the aboutness of life, to direction, growth, merit, and value. To some people, an elk in London is not a reliable landmark. (Incidentally, there are a handful of words a reviewer should be fined for using. They are praises doled out from a safe distance, and they are signs of a colossal laziness. High on this list: quirky, whimsical, heart-wrenching. And don’t get me started on unflinching: only corpses and sociopaths are unflinching.)

McCracken’s characters can be aptly summarized by a word game invented by the narrator’s mother: “I am dogged, you are stubborn, she is pigheaded.” The sizes of their egos vary along with their shoe sizes, their desires and obsessions are sundry, but they all have tenacious souls. Tenacious characters sometimes are given their due, when they fit into a neat narrative of aboutness: this is a story about a character’s successful journey or triumphant transformation. Those who are tenacious miscellaneously tend to be dismissed as quirky: What do you gain by your tenacity, my dear, but to be more like yourself instead of others?

But the miscellaneously tenacious are equally heroic, in a more individual manner. Their stories are free from the chorus treatment; they themselves are never part of any chorus. And they may even, given the choice, protest their fates of becoming characters in fiction. The mother in The Hero of This Book warns against what happens after her death:

She didn’t believe in graves, or memoirs about parents, was suspicious of a writer who might start such a book before (as my mother would say) the corpse was cold. It’s worse than that, I might tell my mother now: Such books start before there is a corpse. They start in the hospital, or on the plane to the city where the hospital is located. They start the minute life looks fragile. It might sound stonehearted, but it’s only a way to keep the person close. Not as close as in life, impossible, but also in some ways closer. I’m not saying it’s selfless. It’s greedy. It’s one of the greediest things I know.

I don’t know which kind of mother is more demanding for an author: the one who clamors to be at the center of every book, or the one who asks to be left out and left alone, not from a reserved nature, but because she is confident in her omniscience. When you read to the last sentence of the novel, you may gasp, as I did: the mother, dead by then, speaks the most astonishing and perfect closing line a novel could dream of.

It’s worth pointing out that, apart from the incidental resemblance to autofiction, The Hero of This Book occupies a unique place in McCracken’s repertoire. It tackles one specific relationship that she has, till now, dealt with in the most oblique way: the relationship between an author and her characters. “I gave characters my secrets but not my face or biography,” the narrator says of her earlier fiction. “I saddled them with things I believed about myself but had never told anyone.” A compelling statement, which can be read as a manifesto for one breed of fictioneers—those who aren’t keen to make a case for their writerly selves. Writers in this group: William Trevor, Edward P. Jones, Claire Messud, to name a few; and, of course, Elizabeth McCracken.

The mother in The Hero of This Book is different from McCracken’s previous characters in one fundamental way: she is so singularly herself that she categorically rejects anything that the author might wish to graft from herself onto the character. In writing this novel, McCracken has confronted that fraught relationship between an author and her characters in a more straightforward manner, rather than hiding pieces of herself in different characters, blending in.

Any novelist knows how insatiable one’s characters can be, and how elusive, too. The question is: Do you still love them? If the answer is yes, then: How?

Early in the novel, the narrator describes a method she uses to help her mother climb the stairs.

Years before this I had invented a method I called the Footjack, in which, when she was going up stairs, I would stand behind her and stick my foot under her foot and bring it up to the target stair, and while you can never know what it feels like to be in somebody else’s body, in this case I had an intimation of one aspect: I could feel all through my leg how stiff her leg was that day. Sometimes it was a cinch to raise her foot. Other times I had to use all my muscle, while my mother winced, said, “No, keep going.”

One cannot imagine a more concise example of how a writer articulates the conceivable and yet imperceptible—the pains inside a stiff body, which is so intimately connected to the narrator’s, yet so foreign. Bodies: all people have to live in them, and all have to die in them. Bodies take up space, each with its unique measure, contours, and will. The narrator, considering her students’ work, observes:

Young writers sometimes catalog every thought and emotion of a character without knowing their weight or their gestures. But if you don’t take your characters’ bodies into account, your work is in danger of being populated by sentient, anguished helium balloons. I tell my students all the time, Don’t forget your characters’ physical selves. If your characters feel distant, remember their specific gravity on the earth. If you know what a character is doing with her hands, you might know what she’s doing with her head. If you know her feet, you may know her soul.

This good advice brings me back to McCracken’s first novel, The Giant’s House, a love story between a small-town librarian and a boy whose growth seems uninhibited until death interferes. (Andy Serkis will soon direct a film adaptation of the novel.) The boy, who suffers from gigantism, faces a difficulty similar to the mother’s in The Hero of This Book: as their physical growth or deterioration progresses, both begin to struggle with their shoes. Their feet, tortured by ill-fitting shoes, sustaining the weight of life, may as well be the physical manifestations of their souls: unbearably proud, and unbearably helpless.

When the narrator first discovers the dire state of the boy’s feet, rubbed raw and pulpy, she tries to clean them, but as she swabs, “the paper towels fell to messy pieces,” and she wonders:

How could this have happened? We kept him fed, got him books, we sent him on a walk with a pretty girl, we worried and we fussed and we never thought of his feet. Never occurred to us that someone who could not feel his feet would have problems with them: weren’t all foot problems pain?

If you take your characters’ feet for granted—if you haven’t washed and bandaged your characters’ toes, if you haven’t placed their feet on yours to lift them upstairs—perhaps they have a right to refuse to come alive. You’re stuck with sentient and bodiless beings: egos, ghosts, cyphers, fragments of an insufficient imagination.

The secret of McCracken’s writing, one may venture to say, is her relationship with her characters. She knows and loves them: body and soul.

Do all novelists love their characters? One cannot give a sweeping answer. But I’ve known writers whose love for their characters is the kind a puppeteer has for his puppets; or writers whose love for their characters is the kind given to idols by the worshippers; and of course, writers who love their characters as their alter egos. The love McCracken gives to her characters is none of the above. It is unsentimental, near ruthless, as God loves his children—not alleviating their pains or satisfying their fancies, not heeding their prayers for even the most reasonable improvement of their lives. Her love for her characters is tender and attentive, as tender and attentive as a mother trimming a newborn’s fingernails. But here is the crucial thing: McCracken does not err as God or mothers do. Her love is not proprietary; her love does not claim the final say. She loves willingly, not blindly.

Do the characters love the author back? Not McCracken’s. They are too enwrapped in their own stories, too enrapt, to pay attention to her. And that is a good thing: characters who love their author inevitably feel the urge to serve. When the characters mind their author’s feelings and expectations, they are like actors auditioning for new roles or children trying to fulfill their parents’ ambitions.

Readers who are interested in getting to know McCracken may be able to do so by reading all her fiction and reconstructing her through the negative space left by the characters. In one sense she is the hero of all her books, clothing and feeding the characters, giving them space to live and die, making allowances for their flawed selves. The characters take up an enormous amount of space, and yet there is always room they don’t occupy. They may have many disagreements with the world, but McCracken does not argue with them—nor does she argue with her writerly self. She is one of the least argumentative authors I’ve known. Argument happens when one’s space is encroached upon; McCracken has reserved plenty of negative space for herself.

I remember, at the same orientation I mention at the beginning of this essay, someone gave a brief lecture about American football. She explained the rules and shared some fascinating anecdotes. One point she made: American football is American history. Pushing forward, grabbing land, alleging ownership, destroying opponents—the yards you win belong to you.

Why only American history? Look at any country’s or any profession’s history and it’s bound to be the same story. Writers are not exempt from this urge to possess. The aboutness of a writer’s work is a useful tool in this game: to stake and to fence are the first steps in claiming a piece of the literary landscape. For the same reason, the assertion that a writer is doing something that has never been done before is popular: frontiers, which may have been visited by other writers from other generations, are alluring for their property value and potential. Trailblazers, however, easily become settlers; adventurers become occupiers.

How reassuring it is to have writers like Elizabeth McCracken among us. She has no interest in gaining a few yards on the field. Frontiers do not interest her. Her fiction does not offer us a map. She trusts that her real readers are not interested in being delivered to the destination. Her specialty is the interior, and the interior is vast. We must bring our own compasses, emotional and aesthetic.

 is the author, most recently, of The Book of Goose.

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