‘The Hero of This Book’ is a slightly fictionalized memoir that examines devotion

Let Elizabeth McCracken update the genre of the parenting tribute.

This book is not a memoir, or at least not a simple memoir, because McCracken promised his fiercely private mother, who hated memoirs and especially memoirs about dead parents, that he would never write about her. In fact, the frontispiece of the book reproduces the inscription that McCracken supposedly wrote to his mother in his first book, Here’s your hat. What’s your hurry?: “For mom, whose life story I will continue with mine, but never – no matter what she or anyone else thinks – she appears as a character in my work, being too good for my taste and my characters.” It is dated Mother’s Day, 1993.

And here we are, less than 30 years later, reading about a reasonable facsimile of McCracken’s mother in a “novel” in which the narrator, a short, stocky anonymous writer who is No the hero of this book, spends a day alone in London during a heat wave in August 2019, “the summer before the world stopped. It’s been ten months since his mother died and three years since his last trip to London together.” she there? “She was trying to decide what I thought about my life.”

And here’s how McCracken, an Iowa Writers Workshop graduate who teaches fiction at the University of Texas at Austin, advises aspiring memoirists to sidestep qualms about handling private, personal material: “Maybe you fear write a memoir, reasonably. Invent a single man and call your book a novel. The freedom a fictional man gives you is immeasurable.” She tells us this after introducing a “blinking friendly Englishman named Trevor” who checks her into her small hotel in Clerkenwell.

There is also freedom in making your narrator an only child who is not married and has no children. As he eventually acknowledges, McCracken, the author of this book but not, for the most part, the narrator of it, has a brother, a husband (writer Edward Carey), and two children. He prefers to write fiction, where she is safe offstage: “Applying any word to who I am feels like a pin aimed at my insect self.”

Other advice: McCracken’s narrator reminds readers not to trust writers who give advice, but adds, “If you want to write a memoir without writing a memoir, go ahead and call it something else. Let others people argue about it. Arguing with yourself or the dead will get you nowhere.”

So The hero of this book it’s a hall of mirrors, a loosely fictionalized memoir that questions genre and the act of writing, even as it strives to evoke McCracken’s beloved mother in all her splendid idiosyncrasies to keep her from “vanishing.” It features the snappy prose we’ve come to love in witty novels like giant’s house Y bowling, and in McCracken’s latest collection of deeply funny stories, The Museum of Remembrance.

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“I have no interest in ordinary people, having met so few in my life,” McCracken’s narrator tells us early on, adding, “Your family is the first novel you meet.” Her wonderfully bizarre parents were “a visual gag,” she writes, her father 6’3″ with a stutter and a temper; her mother, under five feet with wild dark hair and eyebrows, wandered around with canes and determination, hobbling with cerebral palsy. and botched surgeries. Both parents were highly educated and had long careers at Boston University, but were terrible with money. They were also hoarders who amassed antiques and encyclopedias and junk heaps, leaving their Massachusetts home to fall into alarming misery. … in every way except for his bad habits, which is the secret of a happy marriage and also the cause of the catastrophe,” he says.

His mother grew up “disabled and Jewish in a small town in Iowa,” but was undeterred. Her “good cheer was an engine that would burn you if you tried to touch it, hoping to turn it off.” She was an amusing wacko, adamant in her views, including her belief that “psychotherapy was like trying to fix an engine while it was still running.”

By McCracken’s own admission, not much happens in this book. The narrator wanders around London, visiting Tate Britain, the London Eye and a production of Summer night Dream. “I kept walking. It’s not a great plot. As a fictional character, I do very little consequence, although as a writer, what I like most about fiction is its ability to anatomize consequence.”

Don’t be fooled for a minute. This layered book is packed with consequences, love, funny observations, musings on writing, and the risks of hurting yourself and others. “I don’t think writing is that hard, as long as you’re comfortable with failure on every level,” McCracken says with typical wit.

“Why do I write?” asks his narrator. “To try to put human beings on a page without the use of vivisection or preservatives or props from a spiritualist, so that they appear still alive.”

Mission accomplished. Natalie Jacobson McCracken, 1935-2018, comes to life as a wonderful heroine in this book, as does her daughter for writing it.

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