‘A spicy calamari meatball’ – Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken

tsemOpening scene: Zeus (me), Hera (Jenny Offill), some other god, Aphrodite or whatever (Nicola Barker perhaps) are lounging around in a temple on the top of Mount Olympus in flattering, and pleasingly modest togas (maybe with jeans and t-shirts on underneath, in case of drafts) when Apollo (let’s say, Kevin Barry, yeah that’ll do) runs in with a look of fear and fury on his chiselled-god-like god’s face. He weeps. He rents at some garment or other. He wails. He tells us that despite the warnings of Zeus (me), one of the islands is still producing dull, po-faced, white, male, literary fiction that tries to amalgamate all the worst parts of Hemingway and Austen into one, turgid, 400 page, Booker prize seducing novel after another.

I look at Poseidon (some other writer, it doesn’t really matter does it? We both know this whole introduction is just me building up to a shit punchline. Let’s just get on with it) and roar an order:

“Release the McCracken.”

In a cage beneath the sea, a gate opens. The tides rise. A giant wave destroys the cities and salts the plains. Ian McEwan stands in front of a Sainsbury’s book display of his latest novel as the water rushes toward him. Close up of his face. Annnnnd…

Cue opening titles…

We live our lives not in the ‘real world’ but on the border between our thoughts and our experience. Any truly interesting fiction recognises this. A writer too cautious to introduce a ghost into their story without first setting up the possibility it might be a hallucination isn’t worth reading. Because, and this can’t be stated firmly enough: all stories are lies. The Nick Adams stories are no more ‘true’ than the tales of Narnia. Lies are lies, it is silly to pretend otherwise. But we are stupid creatures and we think a search for truth is somehow noble. We write boring books to look cool.

So, when the first line of the first story of a collection is,

“Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees.”

I whisper, “yes, thank you” and grin like an idiot.

Thunderstruck is a great collection, nine stories, all superb.

And no, clearly, Elizabeth McCracken should not be compared to the Kraken, which is, in this reference at least, a clumsy appropriation of an Icelandic legend used to bolster a slightly crap 80s film supposedly based on Greek mythology and not really a suitable metaphor for a great writer. I apologise, I do. But imagine it for a second, just a second, a giant human, capable of smiting lesser writers. Wouldn’t that be great?

Actually, no, it would be terrifying, wouldn’t it? I mean look at the state of this review. I would so be smote right now. So totally smote.

Flicking through Thunderstruck to construct a review, the thing that strikes you hardest is the fact that the worlds that McCracken creates in each story are so fully realised that you feel you have spent far longer with their characters than the ten or fifteen pages you actually did. For prose so easy on the eye, and so enjoyable, it is remarkable how much work each sentence does.

Any Cop?: Thunderstruck is so good that in trying to review it I seem to have had some sort of mini-breakdown and just ranted about fictional sea monsters. That is a spicy calamari meatball.

Benjamin Judge






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