Elizabeth McCracken’s Weird Fiction Breathes Life Into Old Tropes
“I think all writers have this Platonic ideal of the book they’re going to write next, and then you realize that you’re hamstringed by your own obsessions.”
“First I dreamt I was looking for a childhood photo to show somebody, but in all of them I was passed out drunk & pantless,” the author Elizabeth McCracken tweeted on Jan. 20.
“Then I dreamt that I showed up to give a talk to a full room but one guy rolled his eyes at me when I spoke & then 80% of the people walked out.” The punchline comes in the third tweet that immediately follows: “I must be about to publish a novel.”
Twitter has become a place for authors to air their prelaunch jitters and witticisms, and although the 52-year-old Austin-based author has published two story collections, two novels, and a heart-rending memoir, her tweets confirm that launching a book never gets easier.
McCracken’s 1996 debut novel, The Giant's House, is the story of a Cape Cod librarian who falls in love with a man who grows to be 8 feet tall. The novel, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction, is a masterpiece infused with sorrow, beauty, and just the right amount of strangeness and humor to be labeled "eccentric.” Her second novel, Niagara Falls All Over Again, published nearly 18 years ago, is a tender look into the lives of two vaudeville comedians turned Hollywood stars, à la Abbott and Costello. In it, McCracken manages to infuse slapstick humor with enough pathos to make you cry. Throughout her stories, novels, and memoir, McCracken forces you to notice the humor and the grief of the everyday, and to realize how inextricably linked they are. To read McCracken’s prose is to laugh out loud while your heart breaks, to find whimsy and profound beauty in both the odd and the mundane, to identify fiercely with characters whom you might presume to have little in common.
While her output has been steady — and Twitter has been a wonderful place to find her in the meantime — McCracken’s third novel still feels long-awaited and hard-earned. Bowlaway is a sweeping family saga that is spectacularly weird in the author’s trademark way as grief and hope and oddity coexist in the same paragraph or even the same sentence — and are all tied together with a wry little bow.
McCracken forces you to notice the humor and the grief of the everyday, and to realize how inextricably linked they are.
The novel focuses in on Bertha Truitt, a force of a woman who awakens in a graveyard at the turn of the 20th century with seemingly no memory of who she had been before. Bertha’s unconventionality captivates the hardscrabble residents of the small marshy town of Salford, Massachusetts, immediately: “She was two things at once. Bodily she was a matron, jowly, bosomy, bottomy odd. At heart she was a gamine. Her smile was like a baby’s, full of joyful elan. You believed you had caused it. You felt felled by a stroke of luck.” And like McCracken’s previous work, Bowlaway contains not so much magical realism as it does real-life reverie suffused with the otherworldly, while still being bound by the limits of physical law. “I don’t think there’s anything that couldn’t happen in the book,” she tells me in New York City over the 2018 Christmas holiday.
In Salford, Bertha creates a brand-new life for herself while whispering into the dreams of her new neighbors. “It is possible to bowl away trouble,” she tells them, before building and opening a candlepin bowling alley that provides a physical and metaphorical framework for much of the novel.
Not familiar with candlepin? Though the sport is regional to New England, McCracken was surprised to hear people outside of Massachusetts hadn’t heard of it. “Even as the country becomes more alike in popular culture from state to state, there are weird pockets of things that nobody from outside has heard of,” she says. The most faithful players at Truitt’s Alleys describe candlepin like this: “Why Our Game is better. It is harder. It is arranged to disappoint.” The pins themselves are thinner than standard 10-pins, and the candlepin bowling ball is small, the size of “a grapefruit, an operable tumor.” It is a game of skill, in which “nobody has ever bowled a perfect string, every pin with every ball, all the way through.” At Truitt’s Alleys women are encouraged to bowl out in the open, without a modesty curtain to dodge the eyes of curious men. It’s one corner of their little town where they’re actually equal — because while they might not yet have the right to vote, the women of Salford can bowl.
Bertha claims to have invented the game of candlepin, and the always-wise third person narrator of Bowlaway cares not about the veracity of her assertion: “Maybe someone else had invented the game first. That doesn’t matter. We have all of us invented things that others have beat us to: walking upright, a certain sort of sandwich involving avocado and an onion roll, a minty sweet cocktail, ourselves, romantic love, human life.” For McCracken, both invention and reinvention are equally worthy of celebration. And it feels just as important as playing with what is real and what can only happen in our imagination.
There are many myths that make up the backstory of Bowlaway: spontaneous combustion, a possible UFO, and a “Salford Devil” that terrorizes the town. McCracken says she tried to recapture the “creepy/happy” feeling she got when she read books as a child. “I read a ton of books of lists and People’s Almanacs. I was trying to re-create that feeling of reading creepy books, in which you think things could possibly be true.” When I question a particularly fanciful cause of death, she says, “One of the most factually accurate events to happen in the book is a thing that happened in Boston called the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. It really happened.”
“You meet other writers in various ways,” the magical short story writer Kelly Link writes to me one morning. “Some you encounter first in your head, when you read their books. Sometimes you love someone's work, and then you meet them and you wish you hadn't met. Sometimes you meet first, and then you read a book and realize that you like them much better than their novel or vice versa. Elizabeth McCracken is a peculiar case, because every time I've met her I've liked her more — and then every book I read, I'm more knocked over by her sensibility, her point of view, her economy and power and empathy. Also she's pretty great on Twitter.”
Is Twitter a craft? Of course. And McCracken’s presence on it is as charismatic and charming as she is on the page, which has earned her legions of fans. After being Twitter friends for nearly a decade, we finally meet in real life on a Saturday afternoon in Midtown Manhattan near the hotel where she and her husband, the novelist Edward Carey, are staying with their children Gus, age 11, and Matilda, age 10. McCracken’s mother has recently died, which is why they’re not spending the Christmas holiday in Boston, and I try to choose the most low-key place in the neighborhood to eat and talk.
At a generic Italian restaurant that I hope will have the opposite vibe of a Sex and the City brunch, I ask her if she has a controversial book opinion. It’s a question that was making the rounds of Book Twitter, and she takes a moment before answering with hers. “J.D. Salinger is one of my favorite writers but I cannot stand Catcher in the Rye,” McCracken says. “I love Franny & Zooey and I love Nine Stories. But I don’t believe the voice in Catcher in the Rye, and that’s a deal breaker for me in a first-person narrator.” I laugh and think how much better high school English would be with the machismo of required reading turned down a notch or two. How much more robust would my education have been had I read more women, especially ones who were still alive?
"I find it very strange to abstractly want to have children, and I find it even stranger to abstractly want to get married.”
While we meet, McCracken’s children are seeing Mary Poppins and later that evening she and her husband will join the children to see the Broadway revival of My Fair Lady. It’s fitting that in this latest staging of My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle’s reinvention comes at least partially on her own terms, and not solely on the whims of noted misogynist Henry Higgins. The reclamation of Eliza’s story meshes well with Bertha Truitt’s own startling agency during roughly the same time period.
“At one of the first readings I ever gave, my great-uncle David was in the audience, and when I asked if there were any questions, he raised his hand and asked when I was going to be married,” McCracken tells me. Her Bertha does not need a man, but when she meets Leviticus Sprague, the doctor who revives her upon waking in the graveyard, her life is forever changed. The narrator of The Giant’s House, too, thinks romance has passed her by, and happily considers herself a “spinster” until love shows up. So had McCracken and I. We both met our husbands when we were 35, when, as she so aptly puts it, “I felt like if it didn’t happen I could just have another kind of life. If it had been a different life, it would have also been lovely.”
McCracken writes exquisitely about such a feeling in Bowlaway, in which Bertha’s choices are entirely gratifying and entirely her own.
She had never intended to marry the way some people never intend to go to sea. It struck her thataway, something you couldn’t change your mind about for months if you didn’t like it. Marriage to Dr. Sprague was an ocean — one of those peculiar foreign oceans so full of salt it buoyed the leaden. She was in the middle of it. She could not sink if she wanted to.
Bertha also has an unexpected later-in-life baby whom she adores. “There are all these discussions about whether a woman should or shouldn’t have children,” McCracken says. “Why is anyone arguing about a personal decision?”
McCracken’s first pregnancy ended with the loss of her child before birth, and her excruciating yet life-affirming memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (2009), details her and her husband Edward’s mourning process. I have a hunch that unsolicited opinions followed, and McCracken confirms. “Occasionally someone would say something glancingly about my age, being unkind about how I’d waited. Again, I was 35 when I met the only person I’d ever consider having children with. I find it very strange to abstractly want to have children, and I find it even stranger to abstractly want to get married.” We laugh together and I wonder how it could be that still so few people understand this. “You only have to look at the world around you to know that it’s really good to be married to someone whom you love, and terrible to be married to someone that you don’t. If Edward had said he didn’t want to have kids I would’ve said great, let’s not have kids.”
McCracken thinks a lot about these “rites of passage,” especially in terms of what they say about modern life and how performative they have become. “Gender-reveal parties, hosting sonograms on the internet, engagement parties, filmed proposals. The phenomenon of people videotaping their children opening up a response from a college to see if they got in. Doesn’t that make you want to throw up?” she says. “Being pleased about something in private seems so much nicer.”
Still, when McCracken proudly says that her children are lovely oddballs, I believe her. “Matilda was Queen Elizabeth for Halloween and I made the costume,” McCracken says. “I always say that every bit of competition and smugness, both from my literary life and all of other parenthood, gets put into Halloween costumes. I started Queen Elizabeth the day before she had to wear it to school. Matilda applied thick white makeup herself, and she wore an Annie wig and a tiny crown that we sewed to it. Gus is history-obsessed, so he was a Norwegian troll. The costumes were low effort, but they’re high impact.” That McCracken describes her children as if they could be lovable and eccentric characters that populate her fiction only makes them all the more charming.
Book critic and fellow Austin resident Michael Schaub nails McCracken’s sensibility when it comes to traditions. He writes to me, “Elizabeth writes beautifully about characters who are unusual, sometimes damaged, and who aren't particularly interested in conforming to arbitrary norms. She embraces freaks and outcasts; she has little use for 'normal' people. That's also what makes her so great on Twitter. She's basically King Moonracer, and Twitter is her Island of Misfit Toys.”
Although McCracken tends to romanticize the old-fashioned, the vintage, the antique, she has no illusions that the past was simpler or better than the present. In researching her ancestry, much of her focus has been on how women have been erased from the records of history. “My grandfather McCracken was a genealogist,” McCracken tells me. “He would go to Salt Lake City because they baptized the dead, so they had so many records. He’d travel the country going to city halls. He loved it — it was like code cracking to him. When I first thought about the book, I was thinking about the gender divide in genealogy. Women are harder to research because they change their names, and historically the statues have been erected to men. There are all of these ways in which men are on record and women are not.”
She took the names she found in her grandfather’s genealogy charts and used them to populate her novel, breathing new life into them in the process. It’s intentional, then, that her characters have quirky names like LuEtta Mood, Jeptha Arrison, and Leviticus Sprague.
In Bowlaway, throughout the course of nearly a century and over three generations, the family trees that populate the book get mixed up and branches get tangled in unexpected ways. “The characters in Bowlaway would be extremely confused if they did a 23andMe,” says McCracken. “The flip side of genealogy, which can be unsavory, is the idea that blood relation is key, that you’re interested in someone entirely because you’re related by blood. Particularly these days that notion is terrible. You do always want to claim that relationship to fame or infamy, but you have to own the darkness in your family as well as connections to greatness.”
"Novels that don’t have humor in them are not realistic, and the opposite is also true.”
McCracken had intended for the modern-day part of Bowlaway to address the nuances of the study of ancestry. “It was going to feature a genealogist in the last generation of the family. The message would have been: The stories that people tell about each other have nothing to do with their [actual blood lineage.] But I never got there,” she says, smiling. “It happens to me every time — I think I’m going to write a contemporary novel but I never actually get to the current moment.”
I ask McCracken if the character of LuEtta, one of the bowling alley regulars whom we come to love and who is mourning the loss of her daughter, is also another way of rewriting the story of her own grief, this time in a fictional form. “It might have been,” she says. “LuEtta was just one of the gang of women, and then she rose out of it. I was working on a way to understand her and essentially make her an important part of the book. The death of her daughter was one of those ways I tried to get to know her. I was definitely thinking of my own experience when I made that decision.”
“Good light and fun books are hard. But good literature has humor in it continuously. Novels that don’t have humor in them are not realistic, and the opposite is also true,” she adds. Grief and grieving are part of her work just as they are part of life.
As our conversation winds down, I ask if her feelings have changed at all since her mother died. “Before I wrote my memoir but after my first child had died, I was talking to a friend who has had a lot of grief in her life. She said, I still remember something you said in The Giant’s House.” It was something that gave her friend comfort in the midst of despair. McCracken laughs. “And I said, I made it all up! I’m always intending to write a light comic romp, and I’ve never managed to. I think all writers have this Platonic ideal of the book they’re going to write next, and then you realize that you’re hamstringed by your own obsessions.” Her obsessions, of course, are why McCracken is one of the most exciting authors writing today, both on and off the internet. ●