The Hero of This Book: A Novel
“Pure pleasure from first page to last. . . . All the joys of writing are richly displayed here, as is all their power to evoke and hold close.”
Elizabeth McCracken’s book is pure pleasure from first page to last. The narrator is cleaning out her recently deceased mother’s home, taking a trip to London while remembering her last time there with her mother, and not writing a memoir about her mother as she tells these stories. On one level the book is about writing itself, how we bring people to life through their stories, how memories define and guide us. While the narrator (actually the writer McCracken or an invented character—we’re allowed both options) muses on writing fiction, memoir, nonfiction, and what those definitions mean, as she effortlessly evokes her complicated, willful, intense mother. On another level, the book gives us the life of a distinctive character: the charming, funny, stubborn mother who is truly the hero of the book.
There is so much good writing here, this review could simply be a series of quotations from the book. The narrator’s descriptions of the people she encounters are master classes in how to evoke personality with few words. Here, for example, is the hotel clerk at the boutique inn where the narrator is staying during her time in London:
“He was a gentle, blinky Englishman named Trevor, who might have been thirty and might have been fifty. He had a shaved head, hoops in both ears; he wore espadrilles, long loose shorts, and a brown linen vest, which he surely called a waistcoat and surely pronounced weskit. Altogether he looked like someone who was either a vegan or knew how to mindfully butcher a pig and use up every bit, snout and kidneys, trotters and tail.”
The tension between fiction and memoir runs throughout the book, presented and explained in different ways. Although by the end, the reader is convinced that the book is indeed a memoir, or at least full of real events and people, the author insists fiction is better:
“I don’t like being the center the center of attention except under very specific conditions. Then I adore it. That’s why I prefer fiction to memoir. I am unable to render my own character in words, having no idea of what my character is, beyond certain bad habits. My understanding of my own soul is preliterate. 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.”
And yet, the pages that follow belie those instincts. We learn all kinds of details about the narrator, revealing character in the most delightful ways:
“The most wonderful arguments among writers concern punctuation and stationery supplies. On these subjects, people say what they mean, regardless of other people’s feelings or current mores. If you don’t’ like semicolons, you cannot be persuaded to use one. It would be like wearing somebody else’s underclothes. You may even encounter semicolons in another’s work and despise them, as you would a mouse in somebody else’s pantry. There is something wrong with a person who loves ballpoint pens. I believe nothing so deeply as this.”
How can you not love a writer who compares semicolon usage to wearing a stranger’s underwear? As for hating ballpoint pens, that’s a team all writers should be proud to be on. Only a bureaucrat would choose to use such a writing instrument!
These keen observations, often laugh-out-loud funny, are threaded among the rich memories of the narrator’s mother, a woman appreciative of life, observant and sharp in her opinions, as is her daughter.
This book should be used to teach seminars in writing fiction, in writing memoir, in writing plain and simple. All the joys of writing are richly displayed here, as is all their power to evoke and hold close.
The narrator’s dead mother asks her, “Why are you writing about me?”
“Because otherwise you’d evanesce, and that I cannot bear.”
There is no risk of losing that brilliant woman. She will live on in these pages and in the hearts of all the readers who will feel fortunate to meet her and her writer daughter.