Reproduced on the first page of Elizabeth McCracken’s new novel there is a photograph. It shows a dedication scrawled in the front of her first book, Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry. “For Mom,” it reads, “whose life history I will continue to mine, but who will never – no matter what she or anybody else thinks – appear as a character in my work, being too good for the likes of one of my characters.”
The unnamed narrator of The Hero of This Book has recently lost her mother, Natalie. (“I apologise if you hate such narrators and such novels,” the narrator writes, not very apologetically. “We have this in common. I hate novels with unnamed narrators. I didn’t mean to write one.”) It is 2019, “the summer before the world stopped”, and she is visiting London alone. As she walks around the city, a place her mother loved and which they had visited together three years earlier, everything reminds her of Natalie. She crosses the Millennium Bridge, looks at the Rothkos in Tate Modern, drinks a 10.30am prosecco in the cafe. Meanwhile her memories loop round on each other: some recent, some so old as to have become part of the family mythology. In fragments alternately profound and mundane (and, this being McCracken, often both at the same time), they summon her clever, wilful, witty, opinionated, indomitable, fiercely private and tirelessly optimistic oddball mother, who was “more fun than anyone I knew”.
A reader might be forgiven for confusing this Natalie with McCracken’s own mother, who also died in 2018. She shares McCracken’s mother’s family history and her lifelong struggles with mobility, as well as her disapproval of Barbie dolls and bagels cut in half and professional sports, plus her contempt for memoirs, particularly memoirs about parents. (“She liked to quote her favourite New Yorker cartoon, a man on an analyst’s couch, saying, ‘I had a difficult childhood, especially lately.’”) Lucky, then, that The Hero of This Book is absolutely not a memoir. The narrator insists on this from the get-go. “Perhaps you fear writing a memoir, reasonably,” she remarks as Trevor, a “gentle, blinky Englishman”, checks her into her London hotel. “Invent a single man and call your book a novel. The freedom one fictional man grants you is immeasurable.”
It is strangely unsettling to be so explicitly assigned to a state of not-knowing, to a story that is neither quite true nor quite made up, where McCracken both is and is not her protagonist. McCracken – or rather the narrator – is unrepentant. “If you want to write a memoir without writing a memoir, go ahead and call it something else. Let other people argue about it. Arguing with yourself or the dead will get you nowhere.” Equally she roundly rejects the idea of autofiction, claiming not to know what it means (“though it sounds like something written by a robot, or a kiosk, or a European”). And yet throughout the novel she continues to worry at the question of genre, unable to lay it to rest, impulsively stripping off her fictional costume only to scramble it back on a page later.
The result is a shape-shifting hybrid of a book that hedges its bets on every page, playing with its ambivalence in order to explore the equal and opposite compulsions to respect a mother’s privacy and to hold on to her through words. It also meditates on how stories are made, and the impossibility of ever truly differentiating fiction from autobiography. “Your family is the first novel that you know.” And yet the problem with committing real people to the page, even those closest to us, is how little we can ever really know them. Ideally, the narrator admits, she would write a sprawling whole-life novel about her mother, “David Copperfield except Jewish, and disabled, and female, and an American wiseacre, but there’s too much I don’t know and I can’t bear to make up”.
In its place we have this, a slim novel that confirms McCracken as among the finest contemporary chroniclers of everyday life. Like Elizabeth Strout and Ann Patchett, she combines a blistering intelligence with deep humanity, finding the universal in the most ordinary of details. She is also laugh-out-loud funny. In fewer than 200 pages, and without an ounce of sentiment, she paints an extraordinarily vivid portrait of an extraordinary – and much beloved – mother. Fictional or not, McCracken’s Natalie crackles on every page, always eccentric, sometimes exasperating, occasionally gleefully self-mythologising (“she insisted that she invented the mojito … also somehow children’s Tylenol”), entirely and irresistibly real.
Only at the very end of this wonderful book does McCracken allow Natalie herself to address the question at its heart. “Why are you writing about me?” she asks the narrator. “Because otherwise you’d evanesce,” the narrator replies, “and that I cannot bear.” As McCracken knows, the great characters of fiction endure for ever.