‘Souvenir Museum’ Delves Into the Tragicomic Lives of Its Characters

Lee Polevoi

 

The Souvenir Museum: Stories

By Elizabeth McCracken

Ecco

243 pages

 

Sometimes a writer is so abundantly gifted in all the right elements of fiction that finding fault with their work feels ill-tempered at best. Her thumbnail sketches tell us what a character is like in just a sentence or two. The narrative tone of each story strikes just the right precarious balance between comedy and tragedy. And the author’s expert sense of pacing keeps a reader engaged until the story’s end.

 

Elizabeth McCracken is one of these writers, and it’s a rare pleasure to immerse yourself in her new story collection, The Souvenir Museum. As with Thunderstruck, her previous (and equally brilliant) book of short stories, it’s immediately clear she knows what she’s doing—not surprising, given her distinguished career as both a novelist and short story writer.

 

A couple named Sadie and Jack feature in four of the strongest stories in Souvenir Museum, with episodes from their long partnership (marriage comes late), as well as a snapshot of Jack in his earlier days. At one point, in the nightmarishly farcical story, “The Irish Wedding,” Sadie curls up under an electric blanket after a long day and night traveling from the United States to Ireland: “It was warm, lulling, and she felt like a little abandoned animal whose mother has died but who yet might be saved by technology.”

 

Lines like this—with descriptions and images that at first appear both outlandish and overdone but are nevertheless perfect for the moment—are scattered throughout these stories.

 

 

Among other things, McCracken excels at physical descriptions—Sadie’s “Weimar Republic eyebrows,” another character’s “marsupial expression”—that ignite the reader’s imagination and allow us to fill in the rest.

 

“It’s Not You,” a hilarious and poignant story about a young woman adrift after a bad love affair, is another standout. In the aftermath of the affair, the narrator checks into the Narcissus Hotel to lick her wounds. Years later, she looks back on the affair that went so wrong, and briefly considers investigating her former lover through the internet:

 

“That person who broke my heart might be a priest by now, or happily gay, or finally living openly as a woman, or married twenty-five years, or all of these things at once, or 65 percent of them, as is possible now in our world. It’s good that it’s possible. A common name plus my bad memory for faces: I wouldn’t know how to start looking or when to stop.”

 

In the title story, Joanna and her 9-year-old son Leo travel to Denmark to indulge the child’s interest in Viking history. Joanna uses the occasion to track down Aksel, a long-lost lover who deserted the mother and child years ago—and who happens to work in a Viking “educational site and vacation spot.” A typical McCracken protagonist, Joanna is unsettled by her foreign surroundings:

 

“The Viking Village was all around them, smoke in the air, the bleating of sheep who didn’t know what millennium they were in, either. Or perhaps they were goats. She couldn’t always tell the difference.”

 

 

Flaws? Occasionally, McCracken offers too much exposition late in a story, as if these pieces were intended for a longer, stand-alone book. In other stories, like “It’s Not You,” the character’s particulars (and the outcome of the story) are suggested, not explained, and thus resonate more deeply.

 

Many readers already know Elizabeth McCracken’s work, but if you’re not one of them, The Souvenir Museum is an excellent place to start. It may drive you to race through her other stories and novels in the aftermath of this immensely satisfying reading experience.

 

Author Bio:

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, has recently completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

--Courtesy of Ecco

--Ogcricket (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

--Kai Stachowiak (PublicDomainPictures.net, Creative Commons)

 

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