Life and love slip away in ‘Thunderstruck’

05/02/2014 1:00 PM

05/03/2014 8:35 PM

Elizabeth McCracken’s new short story collection, “Thunderstruck Other Stories,” is a duel between the idea of permanence and the fact of impermanence.

McCracken is best known for her National Book Award-nominated novel “The Giant’s House” and her memoir about her first pregnancy ending in a stillbirth, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.”

In the novel, the memoir and this new collection, her 20/20 vision is trained on the human experience of loving and wanting and worrying over someone, only to lose the person in the end.

In the title story, “Thunderstruck,” a mother feels that worry is the current that keeps her children alive. Of worry, she writes, “The same thing that could stop them from breathing in the night could stop them from loving you during the day.”

Similarly, in “Hungry,” a woman speaks the name of her dying son into the phone: “a mother needed to say her dying child’s name aloud, to call him back to life.”

Every one of these stories is haunted by a loss and by the survivors’ feelings of permanence and sense that they can either bring back their loved ones or pull them from the brink.

“Thunderstruck” is the story of a family who has a 12-year-old daughter, Helen. She escapes from the house to huff nitrous oxide with other kids. The parents “couldn’t decide when to punish and when to indulge, when a child was testing the boundaries and needed discipline, and when she was demanding, in the brutish way of children, more love.”

The parents shy away from actually dealing with Helen’s behavior and decide to vacation in Paris for five weeks, thinking that removing her from her friends will be like pressing restart.

The girl, predictably, finds a similar group of kids to spend time with, sneaks out again, and this time hits her head and sustains a brain injury that leaves her indefinitely paralyzed and mute.

But what’s disturbing about this piece is not what has happened to Helen, but rather her parents’ reaction — disturbing because it’s so plausible.

Before the accident, the parents had enjoyed having the beloved version of their daughter back: “In Paris, Helen became a child again.” At the same time, they’re delighted to learn that thanks to her French classes back home, she’s nearly fluent — they can’t speak French at all. The girl handles all the family’s interactions in Paris, and the mother has the “sense that this was how it happened: you became dependent on your children, and it was all right.” A logical natural order.

But this collection of stories is about fighting the natural order, through fighting death and the ghostly impermanence that haunts us.

After the accident, the family splits. The father stays behind to care for the girl, who is still hospitalized, and must take a new apartment. He moves next door to one now vacant because its occupant, M. Petit, has died.

Again, McCracken shows us natural order. New tenants move into the family’s old apartment, and when the father hears them he thinks, “

That’s us still, and I am M. Petit.”

By the end of this story, the father is showering his now totally dependent daughter with attention. He takes up weightlifting, then realizes he has unwittingly made himself capable of carrying Helen, which he’ll have to do a lot.

Only now that she has returned to an infant state does he focus on her and try to understand what she wants. He knows he will care for her the rest of his life, and he is OK with that — a complete reversal of the natural order.

In many cases, the stories’ structures support their subject matter and add to the eeriness.

“Something Amazing” is about a woman whose 6-year-old has died. In this story, as in many of the others, the point of view doesn’t stay with one character.

No story in this collection completely commits to fantasy, but the ghost of the girl is a presence in this story. McCracken swoops in close to a particular character on one page, then zooms out from that same character on another. It’s unsettling, as if the ghost is flitting from person to person.

Early on in “Something Amazing,” the most personal feelings are put into second person, as if the aggrieved mother is speaking to herself: “Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed: your friends will tell you to

cheer up.

Make your house as safe and airtight as possible. What you are allergic to can walk through walls.”

That second person feels intimate, then immediately in the next section the author pulls far back to the general perception the neighborhood kids have of the grieving mother — that she is probably a witch and that her daughter did not die of cancer, but infanticide. The shifts in focus initially make this story difficult to follow.

From a fourth piece, “Juliet”: “We talk to the finches, those filthy creatures. We imagine opening the cage and telling them to go ahead — it wouldn’t be the first time — they should go ahead and fly. Even though we don’t open the door, we tell them anyhow.”

McCracken seems to be saying that there’s no playing God; we only have what we tell ourselves is ours. Although, ultimately, nothing is.

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