Inside the Souvenir Museum with Elizabeth McCracken

-

Elizabeth McCracken’s career is a steady and unassuming success. This may be due in part to her lack of interest in self-aggrandizement. “I haven’t been a public librarian myself for more than 10 years now,” she wrote in her 2008 memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, “but I retain what I like to think of as an air of civic acceptance.” And indeed, she does—she’s unpretentious, kind, and less concerned with a bust being rendered in her honor so much as cataloging other figures.

McCracken has written six books and won a PEN Award, the Story Prize, and been both a finalist and longlisted for the National Book Award. Nonetheless, she’s not exactly a household name. Now the 54-year-old is preparing for the publication of her short story collection The Souvenir Museum.
When asked what characterizes her work, McCracken, who teaches fiction at University of Texas at Austin, pauses to give the question real thought—and to let her cat out. “Well, there’s always a cat in my books,” she says, sitting back down in front of an ajar wooden dresser. “I also tend to write about eccentrics. I’m interested in people who are different because of pure bloody-mindedness. People who do not feel obliged to conform, people who don’t necessarily feel the same societal…” She laughs at herself. “Now I’m sounding pretentious, and I can’t stand the sound of my voice. I said ‘societal.’ God. Why am I expounding on this?”
Reassured that she’s been asked to expound and is not being pretentious, McCracken concludes, succinctly, “I’m interested in people who are emotionally different.”
Her bloody-minded eccentrics are on full display in The Souvenir Museum. And they are aware of their place in history. In the story “It’s Not You,” for example, the narrator looks back on a stay at a hotel when she was heartbroken and had an encounter with a famous radio psychologist. But the retrospective narrator warns: “There isn’t a moral to the story. Neither of us is in the right. Nothing was resolved. Decades later, it still bothers me.” In the title story, the narrator muses on the meaning of souvenirs: “Souvenir: a memory you could buy. A memory you could plan to keep instead of being left with the rubble of what happened.”
This theme of time lost pervades McCracken’s work—as does a sense of mirth over life’s ephemeral nature. That the title story of her new collection takes place at a real souvenir museum is also no coincidence: McCracken and her family collect antique knickknacks, and they are clustered throughout the house. The author clearly treasures the long-lasting. She’s been with her agent, Henry Dunow, for more than 30 years, and she’s long been married to playwright and novelist Edward Carey.
“There’s no author I cherish more,” Dunow says. (The author Ann Patchett must feel similarly, since, as she once told NPR, McCracken is her favorite—and often only—early reader.) The author-agent match was made when McCracken was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Dunow was a fledgling agent. They began their careers together and have stayed loyal to one another ever since.
“After all this time, I’m still in awe of her,” Dunow says. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said that I would recognize an Elizabeth McCracken sentence from a mile away, so singular and distinctive is her prose, so unlike anyone else writing today. She has a way of putting things that is entirely her own: an earthy, pungent way with language; a sly and feisty wit; a piercing insight expressed with such precision it might make you smile, shake your head, or even gasp.” And, he adds, “an array of characters you could not meet anywhere else.”
Despite mostly writing fiction, McCracken also put her own character on the line with her aforementioned memoir, which Reagan Arthur (then at Little, Brown) published. The moving book is about the death of her first child, whom she lost, stillborn, at nine months. Amazingly, the book was written as she literally nursed and rocked her second child (born a few years later) in her lap.
The memoir grew out of McCracken’s urgent need to process her still-present grief coinciding with the arrival of her new bundle of joy. She goes back to the raw aftermath of the tragedy, writing, “At that moment I felt so ruined by life that I couldn’t imagine it ever getting worse, which just shows that my sense of humor was slightly more durable than my imagination.”
This experience appears to help McCracken keep things in perspective, and to stay extremely productive. During the pandemic, she’s felt an obligation to make the most of her writing time, which she notes is an immense privilege in itself. “I always have the sense when I’m working on something that I’m aware of what I will regret in the future,” she says. “Because I had a semester’s leave this year during quarantine, I knew I would not be able to live with myself if I couldn’t get work done during that time.”
And so McCracken and Carey rented a shared space; one would write while the other stayed home with the kids. “I’m all about avoiding the self-loathing I can avoid,” she says. “There’s plenty of self-loathing I cannot, that is coming for me one way or the other. But getting work done is one of the arenas in which I can mitigate it.”
When she was teaching, McCracken also saw the many small treasures to be unearthed under these unusual circumstances. “I found it quite dear to see my students on screen,” she says. “The very shy people in class were less shy. I found, at the end of the class, watching everybody disappear, sort of unbelievably poignant. There was one guy who was always the last person to click away. It was very sweet.”
Asked to predict what kind of trends in fiction this pandemic era might bring, McCracken says she thinks we might at first see many books set right before the coronavirus hit, until writers gain more perspective and comfort with the subject matter.Inside
“After 9/11,” McCracken says, “a ton of fiction writers I know, including me, went, ‘We can’t write fiction anymore. Nothing that we could write could speak to this moment.’ We were like, ‘We’re going to be poets.’ Then everybody, I don’t even know how long it took, was like, ‘No, actually, we didn’t mean it.’ The human mind’s ability to forget atrocities is impressive. We want to write.”
Bonus Links:
The Good Place: The Millions Interviews Elizabeth McCracken
‘Bowlaway’: Featured Fiction from Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2008: Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2018: Elizabeth McCracken

The piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

I Always Write in the Past: The Millions Interviews André Aciman

-

In his new collection of essays, Homo Irrealis, André Aciman contends with the state of mind we spend most of our lives in: the irrealis mood. Aciman defines this mood as “a category of verbal moods that indicate that certain events have not happened, may never happen, or should or must or are indeed desired to happen, but for which there is no indication that they will ever happen”—that is, “the might-be and the might-have-been.” It is a mood sometimes called fantasizing, or nostalgia, but it is really more multifaceted, informing our experience of art, desire, and even our own mortality.
The Millions spoke with Aciman about the collection and how it blends the autobiographical with artistic criticism—all while circling around this particular mood.
The Millions: Do you think that writers, in particular, contend with the irrealis mood?
André Aciman: I do think that writers can focus on it more. It doesn’t mean that they suffer from it more. I used to work on Wall Street for a while, and people on Wall Street follow those ticker tapes—they’re very much in the present. But you mention the irrealis mood to them and they will say, “Oh, yeah, of course, I live there.”
There’s no way you can avoid it, but it’s not a negative at all. It’s a way of basically adding a dimension that we don’t normally know how to speak about. We call it fantasizing, but how about, “What might happen that already did happen once, or could have happened once, but never did? But would it happen again? Would I know how to seize that opportunity once it comes back, if it ever comes back?” These are questions that we have every single day in varied guises.
For example, I was sent to write an article on a particular square in Paris. But it was only in coming back to New York that I could write about what Paris was for me. And I captured something about Paris in that piece that people say to me, “Oh yeah, that was really Paris. You captured Paris.” No, I captured my memory and my fantasy of Paris. I always write in the past.
TM: So living and writing from the irrealis mood extends our sense of time and each experience?
AA: Perhaps. But eventually, whatever you write can sometimes displace what actually happened. And that happened to me. I was writing about a scene in Egypt when I was a boy. Eventually, I went back to Egypt and wanted to walk down that street, which I describe very accurately in my book. I couldn’t remember if I actually made up that street, and I can no longer know. Writing has a way of overwriting the “document” of our lives.
Maybe that’s why we write. Life may start making sense as you write, but it’s an artificial construct. Your real life does not necessarily make sense, if you think of it. Your career makes sense. Your parents make sense. Your love life makes sense. But the life itself, as it has been organized, is just a series of fluke incidents. Plus, even if you swear to every god you know that what you’re writing is exactly as it happened, the fact that you use a particular adverb—God, you’ve already colored everything! So in writing truth, the act of writing already changes things, even if you swear the story is factually true.
TM: As you write in Homo Irrealis, “It’s a mirage of the world that artists long to hold.”
AA: Every work of art is also implying something that it cannot quite get itself to say. The critic’s job is to see what that implication is and to let it speak, even if it’s taking a risk. Even if it is very, very specific to me, good criticism has to address somebody else. In good criticism, I must make space in my sentence for somebody else to sort of slip in and find their own voice in my voice.
TM: Do you think writers fear death more? And that’s why they have to get that “organized” version of life down?
AA: I just think writers talk about it more. But nobody really believes that death is part of life. Have you ever heard that one? “Death is a part of life, you’ve got to accept that. You know, it happens.” No. That is a big, big, huge, erroneous, shameful mistake. It’s a mistake that God didn’t even foresee. Look what you did, God—we’re going to die! It’s a terrible thing.
The worst part of death, as I write in one of the essays, is that you will forget the people you love, which is the worst thing that could happen. I’m going to forget my children. That’s what happens when you die. They may remember you, but you will forget them. That’s almost like a crime in itself. And every day that passes by means that you’re closer to the rendezvous.
Art is a way of saying, “Carry this, don’t lose it. It has me in it. It’s better than me.” Writing can sometimes allow us to organize our lives and to give ourselves the kind of chronicle that our real lives cannot have. You can’t put the pieces together in real life—they just don’t fit. But on paper they can. The paper does things to life. It kind of argues for you—for a better version of your life.
TM: Yet even once you’ve done that, you might find yourself returning to revise that version of your life later on.
AA: On one hand, I like to say to people, “Don’t bother me about my adolescence and my childhood. It’s out in paperback now.” That resolved it. Guess what? A week or two later, the same themes just resurface again.
If you’ve ever suffered from obsession, such as obsessing over someone, at some point, you say, “Okay, it’s over and done with. I found out who this person really is—a disgusting human being. I have no respect for them.” Then, two weeks later, you start fantasizing about them again. What’s going on? You wrote a story about it. You put it out in paperback. And now it’s back. That’s the story of my life. The same things come back constantly.
If you look at the stuff I’ve written in my life, it’s all very much the same. Simon and Garfunkel wrote, like, one song they kept composing and recomposing every single time in a different way. But it’s the same song. That’s all great writers, I think, and all great composers. They are composing one or two ditties and that’s it. The rest is just variations—profound variations.
Bonus Links:
Writing Isn’t a Career, It’s a Mission: An Interview with André Aciman
Bridge Life: On André Aciman’s ‘Enigma Variations’
In Search of Lost Dream Time: Two New Books by André Aciman
Ivy League from the Outside: Andre Aciman’s ‘Harvard Square’
Journeys to the Past: André Aciman’s ‘Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere’

The piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Complicating Consent: The Millions Interviews Katherine Angel

-

When I read Katherine Angel’s first book, Unmastered, I badly craved the experience she described: A feminist enamored with a dominant man, analyzing the power dynamic and its eroticism from multiple angles. I was astounded by Angel’s brain and how clearly she articulated nuances of desire I understood so acutely, but hadn’t yet experienced outside my own fantasies. Years later, I find myself on the other end of a similarly gendered relationship, having also written a book about the experience
So clearly, Angel’s work has had a big influence on me. And that impact continues with her new and very important book, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again (Mar., Verso). This nonfiction tour-de-force is a must-read for anyone interested in exploring themes of consent, power, sex, and the Me Too movement.. This is the kind of book that seeks not to create dichotomous binaries, but to complicate the narrative.
Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again certainly merits further conversation, and I was lucky to be able to have one with the author herself. 

The Millions: Why do you think the current discourse around consent is shortchanging many of us, perhaps especially women? 
Katherine Angel: Well, first of all, let me just say I’m a supporter of consent education. It’s obviously completely crucial that consent is respected and is taught as part of education starting from a young age. But I feel very disturbed by the way in which in some of that consent rhetoric, the onus is placed yet again on women to embody a certain kind of behavior, and a certain kind of personality —somebody who’s explored their sexuality and found out what they want, and is able then to communicate that without fail to sexual partners. But it can be very difficult to speak confidently and clearly about your sexual desire. Expression of sexual desire gets used against women, especially women of color, in courts of law. 
The implication of some of the consent rhetoric is that we can only be safe from violence if we know what we want. And the truth is, we don’t always know what we want — not least because a misogynistic culture makes that difficult. Self-knowledge is something we like to insist we have in our culture. But the fact is, we don’t. And my worry is that in insisting on it, we make women’s safety a condition of their own states. And I think that’s a sort of a strategy for risk management — but I think we should name it for what it is. It’s risk management. It’s not sexual violence prevention. 
TM: The way we’re thinking about consent mostly in these very legalistic terms of, “You either gave it or you didn’t” also reinforces, I think you’re saying, this very contractual idea of sex. That it’s a scarce resource women are withholding, and men are asking for, right? 
KA: Yeah, exactly. And I mean, contractual sexual relationships can be very important. For sex workers or for BDSM sex— there are all kinds of contexts in which the idea of a contract is actually what protects people. However, my worry is with the way in which a legal concept has come to sort of stand-in for what I think is a much wider kind of ethical conversation about not just sexual interactions between people, but interactions in general, where we have to contend with power dynamics. We have to contend with the “otherness” of the other person who might want something different from us and we have to negotiate our own desire in relation to another person’s desire. 
There is sex that is bad and not strictly assault, but that’s not a reason to handwave that away, as I think some critics do. On the contrary, it’s a reason to say, “Okay. What is it that makes sex bad? Why do so many, women especially, experience depressing, painful sex? And why is that something that the culture seems so resigned to? So, I want to acknowledge the importance of the legal conversations, but to say that conversation must not take the place of something much wider and deeper in terms of our cultural preoccupations. 
TM: As you say, any sexual relationship is really about power. And any power relationship is really about sex. 
KA: Right. There’s no sexual relationship in which individuals aren’t dealing in the excitement of feeling one’s own power, and the power of the other — feeling one’s self vulnerable. And that is also true for men. I think a lot of the harm that’s done in the world is done through men’s denial of their vulnerability — and also women’s collusion with that denial. I mean, women can hurt men during sex too, if we want to. Genitals are very hypersensitive parts of their bodies, and it’s also very easy to hurt men psychologically and emotionally. Men undeniably commit the majority of violence. But we all sometimes collude in this kind of denial of men’s own vulnerability. And I think that denial is often at the heart of men’s own sadistic feelings towards women. 
My utopian ideal is if we could live in a society where everybody could feel their vulnerability and try to ride it with excitement. That we wouldn’t have to harden ourselves against that vulnerability, whether in the form of very inflexible notions of our own desires or very inflexible contracts, or in the form of insisting, as in the consent rhetoric, that we know exactly what we want. Because not always knowing is part of the pleasure of life and sex, and unfortunately, it’s also what makes it very risky. 
TM: I love your utopian vision. Of course, I can see the critique that is a privileged one, right? 
KA: Yes. It’s obviously really important to acknowledge that very, very few people have the luck and the privilege to be able to kind of experience that vulnerability, even fleetingly. Because the reality is that women, especially women of color, are disproportionately subject to sexual violence. Men worldwide are punished for not being masculine enough, and that’s not even to mention the violence and discrimination trans people face. 
So, all those things are in the mix, such that for most people, touching that vulnerability is just not an option. But I suppose the thrust of my book is that I really want us not to give up on that hope anyway, and I want our feminist rhetoric not to collude with resignation. And that’s why writing about this kind of stuff is really frightening, because you’re unleashing something very subtle into a really unsteady terrain, where there’s a lot of trauma.
TM: And there’s sort of this pressure when you experience bad sex or sex you’re not sure is assault, to then categorize it. But that pressure is furthering a certain kind of patriarchal, either/or mentality of, “things can’t be subtle and fluid, and you have to decide who’s bad and who’s good.” It’s interesting that the danger I feel in writing down my own story is coming at me from both sides. I’m afraid of the trolls and the misogynists, and I’m also afraid of the Twitter court of public opinion and upsetting those who feel I’m somehow betraying the cause by expressing my ambivalence about whether I was assaulted or abused or consented. 
KA: Yes. And, I mean, on the one hand, consent is the bare minimum for good sex. But it doesn’t guarantee good sex. Consent is just consent. It’s dangerous to inflate it into enthusiasm and ecstasy. These things are different. Agreement to sex is just agreement to sex. So, that’s the kind of the legal side of it. But beyond that, we should really be listening to what makes so much bad sex possible. And that these very constrained horizons for women about how much pleasure they can expect, how much joy they are entitled to? How much sexual exploration they’re invited to play with. 
The world really caters to male heterosexual desire. It doesn’t cater to women’s sexuality. When it addresses women’s sexuality, it tends to do so in ways that kind of re-inscribe this sense of punishment and guilt and responsibility. And the flipside of that is that male desire is represented overwhelmingly in terms of kind of conquest, and sort of joyless satisfaction. And that’s also why sex is often bad for the women who sleep with them, because I don’t think men are well-served by that. I don’t think men are encouraged to explore the unknown in themselves and the vast kind of breadth of sensations they might be capable of. And that kind of narrowness leads to unpleasant sex for women, because it’s so often so focused on such narrow kind of physical parameters. 
So, I really think it’s about on the one hand, like, really taking seriously that very basic kind of consent education. But on the other hand, really trying to think imaginatively about what ideas we might try to loosen and what kind of unknown sort of experiments and pleasures we might allow ourselves if we weren’t so intent on closing sex down.