Thunderstruck

Elizabeth McCracken

Is it really possible that I didn’t read any short story collections in 2015? This is a great one to rekindle an appreciation of short fiction, solid tales with a sense of humanity and a droll flavor. The nine stories in this collection are united in different senses of tragedy: there are both sudden and prolonged deaths, severe injuries, missing people, abandoned homes, and, on the lighter side, artistic betrayal. In the first story “Something Amazing,” two brothers move into a neighborhood haunted by a six-year-old girl who died of lymphoma. The story mostly follows the younger brother who knocks on the door of the ghost girl’s mother, hoping to have a wish granted, and they have a curious interaction driven by the mother’s persistent grief. I like how at the end McCracken coyly slips in reference to the older brother’s activity during the same time, and its acknowledgment of the fragile line between life before and after calamity.

This contour is well-defined in many of these stories, most of them falling in the shadows, in the altered space of drastic shifts. The family of the title story flees to Paris for several weeks after their not-quite-teenage daughter is brought home by cops from a party where kids were inhaling nitrous oxide from garbage bags. The girl still carries her empty bag in hand, and the mother Laura rips the bag open, as if to belatedly protect her.

This was her flaw as a parent, she thought later: she had never truly gotten rid of a single maternal worry. They were all in the closet, with the minuscule footed pajamas and hand-knit baby hats, and every day Laura took them out, unfolded them, tried to put them to use.

Yet in Paris things magically come together. Their troublesome preteen uses her high-school French to help them navigate the city, she gets along with her sister for once. The impulsive, quixotic extravagance seems to have been worth it, although Laura has an awareness that soon “they would step back into the aftermath of all they hadn’t dealt with.” Until the strike that changes everything. At the end the father feels as though happiness is something he is diving into:

It was a circus act, a perilous one. Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.