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Pickle Me This

June 9, 2021

The Souvenir Museum, by Elizabeth McCracken

There is always something so delightfully skewed by Elizabeth McCracken’s literary world, which is populated by ventriloquists and people who play villainesses on children’s TV programs, with runaways and stowaways, and that voice on late night radio dispensing love advice. Literally uncanny, by which I mean that in her latest story collection,The Souvenir Museum, nobody is at home . A distant son takes his widower father on holiday to Scotland. A heartbroken woman checks into a hotel to drink her feelings, and narrowly avoids drowning in someone else’s bathtub. The TV villainess spends New Years with her brother in Rotterdam. A single mother takes her young son to Denmark to find an old flame to give him a watch her father had left him. A mother, the one character who never goes anywhere, is rendered homeless all the same when she loses her entire family. An older gay man takes his young son on a lazy river while his partner takes a break at the bar, and considers the unlikely course of his life. And speaking of unlikely courses, a mother buys her daughter the doll that she’s always wanted (a Baby Alive!) except that her daughter is grown up, expecting her first child, a recovered addict, and alive, while the child of a long-ago friend whose life had once run parallel to hers…is not. This story is called “A Walk Through the Human Heart,” its title referring to a scene set in a science museum, but the title is also an apt description of what it feels like to be reading this book, the exquisite agony of being alive, of being loved, of being left, and bereft.

Stories of Sadie and Jack weave their way among the others, starting near the beginning of their relationship as American Sadie meets her eccentric English relatives at Jack’s sister wedding in the middle-of-nowhere Ireland, and we see teenage Jack in London, later they spend time with Sadie’s mother, and these stories show the baggage that family brings with it, baggage that’s inextricably bound up with stories, some of them true, some of them otherwise. That to love is always, one day, to lose, but we embark on these journeys of a lifetime anyway, and yes, if we’re lucky, there are souvenirs.

These stories, their sentences—they’re disorientating (which is the nature of travel, of course). But they’re also strikingly evocative, marvellously descriptive—but sometimes too much? How can hair be “brown marcel”? Marcel means curly, I think? These are not images you breeze over. I’m imagining Elizabeth McCracken’s mind as a treasure trove of strange words and rituals and people and ideas, the world as we know it rendered in a funhouse mirror, strange and distorted, which is also to say just as it is.

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