Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book 52: "Thunderstruck" is a little overblown. I'd say I was...[wait for it] THUNDERWHELMED. *drops mic*

It wasn't until the last, eponymous, story in this collection that I realized the theme that strung them all together, so I guess I might be slow on the uptake. The stories in Thunderstruck are about how we deal with loss, but the loss comes in all kinds of different varieties.

It's a bit of an uneven collection, despite all the praise it has received, and many of the stories feel like they miss the mark a bit. Reading these stories is something like hearing someone talk about a great book and feeling like maybe you've read it: you can recognize where the exciting or emotional parts are, but aren't quite sure they actually existed.

In Something Amazing, the loss is of children, one who died of lymphoma, the other who disappears one day, and the feelings they leave behind -- the mother of the dead girl believing she herself is sick, papering over the door to the girl's room in her grief, the brother left to pick up the pieces.  This story is moving and interesting, and because it's not clear if the ghost mentioned in the story is meant to be literally a ghost in the story, or a metaphor, the story has a bit of a spectral element.

Property is about a sudden, young widower moving into a rundown rental house in America, and his efforts to rehab it.  This story didn't stick with me much; the main character isn't very likeable and the story itself feels like the summarization of a novel. There are elements that are interesting but they're quickly glossed over, and every character except the main one feels more interesting than the protagonist.

Some Terpsichore on the other hand is almost brilliant: the story of a woman who sang like a saw, and how she accidentally became famous, is touching and unique, a fresh take on what is practically a genre (the broken-down ex-showgirl genre).

Juliet is an interesting story that doesn't quite make it to good. Centered around a woman who befriends a librarian (but told by someone other than the main characters), it doesn't really hit its peak until the very end. Like Property it feels like the better story was hidden behind all the set dressing the author focuses on; there is a very moving scene near the end that should have a wallop, but because it just feels dropped in there from another (better) story the impact is muted.

I did not like The House Of Two Three-Legged Dogs. Part of that was personal: I do not like stories of people who are broke and struggling for money and have trouble finding them entertaining. Even with that caveat though, the story wasn't much. It's about a husband and wife who are bankrupt, in France, and their son, whose name is on the title of their house, is going to sell the house to fix some (never really explained) situation of his own. The husband and wife have lots of pets, including 50 budgies, and they have an eccentric and drunk friend, Sid, and it's all supposed to be very moving, I think, but it felt rushed and forced. Also, I don't like 3-legged dogs, either, so this story really had no chance with me, even if it had been better.

One of the things, before moving on to other stories, that marks most of these stories so far is that in each story, the actual reason for the story seems to be approached only glancingly.  As I re-think each story, it's like they are less-entertaining, less-thoughtful works based on better stories.  If you've ever read (or seen performed) Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, then you know the idea I'm getting at: it is possible to retell a story from the perspective of another character in the original story, and in doing so gain new insight into the old story as well as be entertained by the new.

That doesn't happen here, in part because there is no original story for us to know about. Instead, the stories that work are stories that deal with the best part of what's going on: Some Terpsichore, for example, focuses like a laser on the best part of that woman's story.  Juliet, meanwhile, involves a murder and a heartbreak and a rabbit dying and a family in crisis and yet somehow none of it is interesting; it reads like a semithoughtful review of a movie about those things.

Hungry at least returns to the interesting stuff; the story of Lisa and her grandmother takes place all in one day, really, the 4th of July in the 1970s, while Lisa is spending time with her grandma as her dad is dying in the hospital. Lisa's plan to do Patrick Henry's speech, her love of sweets, the interaction with a neighbor and the grandma's heartbreak about her son are well-written. It's a good story, worth reading.

The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston led me to start thinking about setting. Lots of these stories are set in and around Boston, it seemed; at least, the narrator occasionally managed an annoying BAHSTEN accent, which (sorry, Bostonians) generally made the characters seem less thoughtful, intelligent, and likeable. But the setting didn't even matter; I have no idea where Hungry or Some Terpsichore were set, and they were good stories. Setting should only be mentioned prominently, especially in a short story, if it matters for some reason, and I couldn't figure out why it would in any of these stories.  Writers should keep in mind Chekhov's gun: don't mention things that aren't going to be important.

Anyway, this story is another one of those that misses the mark: it is primarily about a young boy whose mother disappears and he is starving in his house with his terrible grandfather, but as with the others, that's actually the least interesting part of the story. McCracken skips from character to character: the mom, the grocery store manager who helps the boy and thinks it might somehow change his own life, the police officer, more on the mom, a flashback to the night she left, until it's too much to take in so quickly. Then at the end McCracken returns to the grocery store manager, whose role in the matter was completely misunderstood by the boy, and the scene is again supposed to be a huge, devastating one, but because we've spent a million years on other people, it's muted. What could have been a heartbreaker of an ending is instead sort of Lifetime movieish.

Peter Elroy: A Documentary By Ian Casey is easily the worst story in the book. A man dying of pancreatic cancer is dropped off to visit a documentarian who made him look like an a**hole 30 years ago and destroyed his career as... an economics professor? Meh. It felt too forced and too quirky and too inexplicable, and at no point was there the opportunity (or reason) to care about "Peter Elroy" for any reason. He wasn't dramatically drawn enough for us to take some sort of bitter pleasure in his downfall (or downstay), but he wasn't making any effort to be more likeable or generate sympathy. I couldn't tell why this story was even in here, unless it was to pad out the page count.

The title story, Thunderstruck, is a B+ of a story, maybe A-, and also worth reading. A family takes a 5-week trip to Paris after their 12-year-old daughter is brought home from a party she snuck out of the house to go to, wearing just a t-shirt. The story itself manages a good setup of both dread and hope, and captures some family dynamics pretty well; the main characters are interesting and people you want to root for, even the 12-year-old.  When things take a turn for the dramatic, the story even manages to up itself a notch.

It would be an A+ of a story but for two things: One, it feels again a bit rushed; McCracken should have let the story be a bit longer, maybe; there's a lot that happens, especially near the end, that apparently happens in a relatively short time, and it was jarring when she reminded me that it was such a short time. (I had the same feeling with The World According To Garp; sometimes writers have so much happen to a person and then they're all oh yeah by the way that was all in 3 weeks and it's too much; it pulls you out of the story while you're trying to work out the time sense.)  But it's more than that: without spoiling what actually happens (because it's still worth reading), I can tell you that McCracken chooses sides.

The story boils down to the husband and wife of Helen, the 12-year-old, having differences of opinion about Helen and her life going forward; the mom has one (very depressing but realistic) view and the dad has another (hopeful and optimistic) view. How the dad realizes what the mom is telling him, and how he decides to look at it, is wonderful. Had McCracken left the story at that, she would have written a story worth remembering. But she cheats, and lets the reader know that the dad is right and the mom is wrong, in a way. This doesn't have the effect of making the dad braver or better, because the dad doesn't know it. He's not being brave, by not confronting the mom with what he knows. It's just McCracken, not trusting her readers to be ready to handle ambiguity, and so leading them like donkeys: oh by the way you need not think for yourself, here is what I will tell you.

That would be fine, except that the rest of the story actually requires us to not know what McCracken tells us, for the story to be great, for it to work.  It's hard to explain fully without you having read it, but the point of the story seems to be that people can work through loss of any kind, even the loss of faith in a spouse caused by the revelation of who they are and how they affect our own dreams, even the loss of those dreams themselves, if we love enough -- even though we are not sure what, or who, we are loving about.

That's what I took to be the theme, anyway, and it would work great, but, again, McCracken takes away the ambiguity. Her story makes you want to side with the dad while also understanding the mom, and accepting her -- the way the dad does -- but she makes it okay for you to do that by telling you it's okay.

All in all, the stories were okay.  It's not a waste of time to read it. I enjoyed all but two of the stories, at least a bit. But if I had to do it over again, I'd probably just read a few of them. McCracken has some talent, for sure, but she never quit hits the mark.

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Weird synchonicity PS: This collection of short stories ends with a story in which art helps a person cope with a loss; the cover is (as you can see) an all-white cover with a blue line and seems like it's related to that story.

My collection of short stories, Just Exactly How Life Looks, ends with a story in which art helps a person cope with a loss; the cover is (as you can see) an all-white cover with a blue line which (I can tell you) is directly related to the last story.


4 comments:

Andrew Leon said...

I'll just decide that yours, which I've already read, is better and skip this one.

Crystal Collier said...

You just never know what you'll get in an anthology, eh?

Liz A. said...

Short stories are hard to write. And I have a hard time reading them.

Briane Pagel said...

Liz: I have a bias against short stories, too, which is weird because I like writing them and I generally enjoy reading them (at least the good ones.) I think it's just ingrained in us: novels are where it's at.

Crystal: you can say that again!

Andrew: as usual, you are a genius and 110% correct.