The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken


This novel is hard to think about and I had to keep reminding myself that it is a novel and I never quite believed that. The narrator is an author writing about her mother who had recently died. I loved the tone.

She works hard to explain she is writing fiction, although it feels like a memoir.

I don’t like being the center of attention except under very specific conditions. Then I adore it. That’s why I prefer fiction to memoir. I am unable to render my own character in words, having no idea of what my character is, beyond certain bad habits. My understanding of my own soul is preliterate. Wife, daughter, mother, friend, some people write in their social-media biographies. Why on earth? Applying any words to who I am feels like a straight pin aimed at my insect self. I won’t have it. I can’t do it.

And later:

“Is your work autobiographical?” people like to ask, and when I was young I would say, “No, not factually, but it’s emotionally autobiographical.” I believed it. I hid things in my early stories, amid the circus performers and the elderly criminals, the drunks, the tattooed woman, the mysterious huckster who insisted she was family.

Here she writes about a trip to New York with her mother:

At this last theater of our lives together, we entered at ground level; instead of going up, the house went down, the stage many feet below street level.This sounds like a dream as I describe it now, or a made-up place. It’s not a made-up place, though this is a novel, and the theater might be fictional and my insistence fictional, and my mother the only real thing, though this version of her is also fictional.

Here’s a fun protestation:

The fictional me is unmarried, an only child, childless. The actual me is not. (The fictional me is the narrator of this book. The actual me is the author. All Cretans are liars; I myself am a Cretan.) No, I’m telling the truth now, I swear. I have a brother, and some offspring, and am married.

Though I am obviously intrigued by the fiction vs. memoir business she explores, I believe she wrote to remember and honor that unique woman, her mother. I have not quoted enough to give a feeling for her mother, but here is this:

…my mother walked with canes, deliberately, with a kind of hitching grace, picking up one cane and setting it down, then the other; I can see it, though I can’t describe or explain it, in the way that before Muybridge nobody knew exactly how horses ran. Once, I saw a young woman, decades younger than me, walking through a Target in the exact same hitching way, and tears sprang—sprang, as though from a spring—to my eyes, and I wanted to follow her until I realized what a fucking creep I was.

Her parents were originally from Iowa and that state comes up occasionally. I want to remember two towns she mentions:  What Cheer (and I did determine this is not a fiction) and the tulip festival of Pella, Iowa, a town settled by folks from the Netherlands which is the headquarters of Pella windows and doors.

Elizabeth McCracken, The Hero of this Book, Ecco/HarperCollins, 2022, 177 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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