You Must Be This Happy To Enter, Elizabeth Crane. Punk Planet/Akashic Books. 250pp, 14.95.
Elizabeth Crane’s newest story collection, You Must Be This Happy to Enter, is a disarming artifact, so much so that it’s difficult to review. The book is so much fun to read that you set down your evaluative filter and forget to pick it up again.
Following When the Messenger is Hot and All This Heavenly Glory, this third collection manages to touch on a wild array of topics—reality television, college drinking, adult relationships—while still feeling cohesive. Though its stories are unconnected, the book accrues the same energy as a novel, not because of a progressing plot but because the tone of the book pulls in readers and pushes them forward with remarkable force. The stories feel like cupcakes that don’t fill you up.
That being said, it’s not a book to be read only for its surface pleasure and soon discarded. There’s artfulness to this pleasure, even if it’s difficult to recognize on a first, quick rush through. Crane’s smooth pacing avoids a problem inherent to many collections, the grab-bag, “look-here’s-what-I’ve-been-writing” feel, while also avoiding another common pitfall, that of reading the same, slightly varied story again and again. Happy is paced like a good album, where each song complements its neighbors. And although the stories are often absurd and wacky, on closer inspection the various forms of wackiness become keen metaphors for larger cultural ideas.
There is plenty of wackiness here. The first story, titled “My Life Is Awesome! And Great!,” is told from the point of view of a woman who speaks entirely in exclamation points and is obsessed over becoming a contestant on a reality television show. Another story, “Donovan’s Closet,” features a woman who becomes obsessed with her new boyfriend’s closet (she’s practically having an affair with the closet). “Betty the Zombie” is about a girl who becomes a zombie and then gets on a reality TV show and eventually comes to terms with her zombie-ness. “Emmanuel” is about a woman whose baby who suddenly turns into Ethan Hawke, while the protagonist of “Blue Girl” has her moods printed on her forehead.
But Crane’s stories are not purely prose candy, nor are they purely satire. They’re a strange brew—parts satire, earnestness, cultural critique, and simply playfulness. The result is something exuberant, something that in its absurdity is both diverting and profound.
For instance, consider “Emmanuel,” where the titular baby turns into Ethan Hawke, the “surprisingly gaunt . . . post-Uma/Before Sunset Ethan Hawke.” It’s patently absurd when this grown-up-yet-still-a-baby version of Hawke tries to go to the local Coffee Is Love franchise and falls down crying, but this absurd image also makes a nice metaphor for celebrity culture, limning the way celebrities are forced to grow up before the eyes of a nation and behave like mature people while they’re still children.
In this third collection, Crane seems to be carving out a younger, brassier, less dystopic territory to complement the fiction of George Saunders and David Foster Wallace. Contrasted with Saunders’ somber outlook, Crane’s vision comes across like a wide-armed, all-embracing love. She has some of the same interests as Wallace—pop culture, addiction, religion, and cliché—but her prose is chattier and more elastic than Wallace’s aggressively knotted sentences. Crane also resembles Dave Eggers in that she shares his exuberance, but Crane’s tone is free from Eggers’s trap of engaging in a battle to be un-pin-downable post-post-modern, so-ironic-it’s-sincere (or is it still ironic?). Crane’s energetically naïve joy is revitalizing, almost as if each of these stories proceeded from a dare she gave herself.
If the results can sometimes be a bit gimmicky, they are freshly so, breaking free from the hemmed-in playground of most contemporary short fiction. And after reading enough moist epiphany stories (to say nothing of the interesting ethnic background story or the somebody-in-this-story-has-a-medical-affliction story) that’s quite a lot.
Finally, the book’s sense of play is contagious, enough to make a reader want to emulate some of the zany situations and characters Crane comes up with. Although there might not be any point to, for instance, owning only furniture that can be inflated, we should remember that one of the aspects of having fun is forgetting briefly the idea of having a point. Happily, this book seems to have both.
Barrett Hathcock is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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