Jan 1, 2020

figments and fragments

In Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel, Bowlaway, there are main characters who abruptly leave and side characters who come rushing to the foreground. It’s got that speedy and jerky passage of time. Many pages have a whole essay’s worth of commentary packed into a few short sentences. But I’m thinking most of all about how, over a decade ago, I read McCracken’s memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, in just a couple of days. I wolfed it down. I’m not someone who seeks out the memoir genre much. But that book was just pure light and heat. It’s the story of McCracken’s first pregnancy and her child’s life that ended in a stillbirth, and the grief that came after. My husband and I both downed the book in a week’s time, and it was in the throes of three pregnancies and births in a span of four years for us. You might have thought we’d want to avoid the morbidity of it in those years, for fear of jinxing that tenuous time. But we found it bracing, both of us.

So it’s been deeply moving to see McCracken take up the subject of that grief, that particular experience of losing a child, in the life of one of the Bowlaway characters. It’s good to see an artist metabolize and make understanding from such a crucible. One of life’s unimaginable losses, annealed and then creatively observed and transformed by handing it to the reader in fiction. As the novelists like to say: None of it happened, and all of it is true. I like that McCracken wasn’t done with the subject yet, and I like being a reader of her nonfiction work and the side look she gives me as her repeat audience: She knows, and we know, that it’s partly her openness to her own experience—not just thinking it, but feeling it—that allowed her to write herself into the lives of others.

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