February 2008

Andrea Chmielewski

fiction

You Must Be This Happy to Enter by Elizabeth Crane

“I! Love! My Life! My life is awesome and great! I have all the things anyone would ever want!” begins Elizabeth Crane’s newest collection of short stories, You Must Be This Happy to Enter. And perhaps the author’s greatest feat is carrying that exuberance all the way to the very last page, filling her stories with a sense of optimism, lightheartedness and wonderment that so often seems missing from literary dialogue.

While the subjects that Crane tackles vary widely from story to story, these tales have more than just her enthusiastic, earnest voice in common: reality television, the nature of happiness, religion, celebrity, and the cult of self improvement all make multiple appearances in You Must Be This Happy To Enter. And while some stories stray over into the realm of magical realism, the author seems at her peak when she is talking about a world the reader can identify as his or her own, even if the people who populate that world are rendered so colorfully they almost pop off the page. “Banana Love” is a story-within-a-story in which a woman and her husband attempt to deal with her irrational fear of bananas: “She would deny the very existence of National Geographic, ‘a periodical practically devoted to bananas.’” “Varieties of Loudness in Chicago” addresses the problem of urban gentrification by examining two very different residents of the same neighborhood. And the final story of the book, “Promise,” in which a woman talks to the baby she will one day adopt, is quite possibly the most emotionally honest piece of writing I have read in the past few years.

When Crane strays too far from this careful middle ground between the realistic and the fantastic, her stories tend to lose a bit of their bite. On one hand there is the magical real “Emmanuel,” a story about a woman whose baby magically turns into Ethan Hawke. This story, while well meaning, is too muddled to make a real impact, with the mechanics of the transformation seeming to change as the story progresses, leaving the reader to sort out what, if anything, Crane is trying to say. On the other, strictly realistic, hand is “Donovan’s Closet,” in which a woman finds herself mysteriously drawn to spending large stretches of time in her boyfriend’s closet. While the author manages to pen a relatively realistic character, the multi-dimensionality that makes some of her other stories sparkle is missing, leaving the reader with a narrative closer to chick lit than any of the stories that surround it in the collection.

Still, there are many more hits than misses, not the least of which are “Betty the Zombie” (in which a woman appears on a Starting Over-style reality television show to deal with her “zombie issues”), “Sally (Featuring: Lollipop the Rainbow Unicorn)” (a beautifully-rendered character sketch, something which is not often found in short story collections), and “The Most Everything in the World” (a hilarious conversation between a couple about what they might bring if stranded on a desert island). And even when she does miss, or when the plot does not quite pan out, her thoughtful handling of each and every story is almost a victory in itself.

You Must Be This Happy To Enter is a well-crafted collection of short stories, one whose clarity of tone and theme unites each and every piece into a cohesive whole. At a time when it seems almost antediluvian to be optimistic, Crane’s sincerity stands as a bewitching reminder that there is more to literature than tragedy.

You Must Be This Happy To Enter by Elizabeth Crane
Akashic Books
ISBN: 1933354437
183 pages