In “The Souvenir Museum,” Each Story is a Keepsake

“He oscillated between his father’s cheer and his mother’s dolor: everything was perfect, unless it went to shit,” writes Elizabeth McCracken about her character David Levine in “Proof,” one of the 12 extraordinary short stories in The Souvenir Museum: Stories. I think of sentences like these as “stop-and-savor” sentences, because they are so artful and such a pleasure to read, and it is in part due to McCracken’s writerly prose that I will go back to read her work again and again.

McCracken is a novelist and short story writer of six previous works. One collection of her short stories, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, won the Story Prize in 2014 and was long-listed for the National Book Award. She has served on the faculty at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently holds the James Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin.

An interesting aspect of The Souvenir Museum is that it has a narrative thread of sorts. Five of the stories chronicle the experiences of a couple named Jack and Sadie. In the very first story, and one of the funniest, the couple attends the Irish wedding of one of Jack’s older sisters. In the final story, they attend another. Weddings serve as bookmarks. Jack and Sadie’s stories highlight the themes that occupy McCracken — love, marriage, and family — and, because they showcase the couple at different times in their lives together, they contribute to the ephemeral feeling of the entire collection.

Jack and Sadie, like many of McCracken’s characters, are delightfully quirky. In one story, “A Splinter,” 16-year-old Jack, who all his life has felt like an “interloper,” runs away to London to become the apprentice of a ventriloquist because he’d developed an attraction that “felt very much like love” to one of her puppets. In “Two Sad Clowns,” in which Jack first meets Sadie, a girl who wanted love so badly “the longing felt like organ failure,” he asks her, “What’s Sadie short for?” “Sadness,” she answers. We learn later about her fondness for empire-waisted jumpsuits and unfashionable haircuts.

McCracken’s characters are “different.” They are oddballs, travelers, expats, or otherwise uprooted and away from home, out of their element — or without any element at all. She’s fond of performers like 49-year-old Jenny Early, the actress who, in “Mistress Mickle All At Sea,” plays the eponymous Mistress Mickle, the child-napping villain in a British children’s television show, who walks on stilts and wears a hoop skirt while getting booed by children in the audience. Another kind of performer, a radio shrink, appears in my favorite story, “It’s Not You,” in which a self-absorbed and self-pitying young woman checks in to a hotel to lament a breakup. The shrink proves himself to be a pretender in more ways than one. And like McCracken, Sadie herself is fond of artists and musicians, performers, even puppeteers, and yearns to meet “somebody she could admire in the company of strangers.”

Parents, however, figure most prominently here, and McCracken’s portrayal of them is both empathetic and heartrending. In one of the darkest stories in the collection, a mother goes mad after the loss of her children and projects her animal hunger for them onto loaves of challah bread. In another, a father who’d inherited a fear of drowning from his mother fears for the safety of his toddler son at a Texas waterpark. Parenthood, he muses, makes one’s life “narrower and deeper” with “more moments of surprising headlong love.” McCracken shows an equal amount of empathy to a mother who recognizes that her love for her daughter “would always be edged with meanness, so as to matter: sometimes you needed a blade to get results.” Parental love, it seems, comes in many forms, and McCracken’s treatment of her parents is free of judgment.

Most of the stories in The Souvenir Museum were previously published in outlets such as Zoetrope All-Story, the Atlantic, and Harper’s, and have appeared in best-of anthologies. It’s marvelous to have them gathered together in one place, put on display as it were. Each is a keepsake.

The Souvenir Museum: Stories
By Elizabeth McCracken
Ecco Books
Published April 13, 2021
Paperback January 18, 2022