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A Chronicle Of Pregnancy — And Loss

TERRY GROSS, host:

Writer Elizabeth McCracken has racked up an impressive array of awards for her novels and short stories, including a National Book Award nomination for her novel, "The Giant's House." McCracken's latest book is a memoir called "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination." Book Critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: The world is too much with us right now. Between an economy in free fall and a presidential election, I'm finding myself less receptive to any book, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, that tells a small, intensely personal story. Give me Dickens, Steinbeck, Robert Penn Warren, Tom Wolfe, writers of sweeping social narratives. These are the times that cry out for epics, not lyrics. Or so I thought, until I picked up Elizabeth McCracken's new memoir, called "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination."

In it, McCracken recalls giving birth to a stillborn baby and the months surrounding this devastating loss. It's a small, intensely personal story, precisely what I haven't been in the mood for reading. But despite my initial resistance, I was riveted by McCracken's memoir, mostly because of her voice, rye, wrathful, and so intelligent. But ironically, also because the atmosphere of her book accords with the overall jittery tenure of our times. McCracken writes about having calm assumptions crumble, lightning strike, the rug cosmically pulled out from under your feet.

McCracken was 35, an acclaimed novelist and contented spinster when she met her future husband, fellow author Edward Carey, at a book party. For the next few years, they conducted themselves like a pair of lost generation vagabonds, subsidized by teaching jobs, fueled by red wine and a passion for writing. They lived in rented quarters all over Europe.

In 2005, when McCracken was two months pregnant, she and her husband settled into a shambling house, a former home for unwed mothers in the French countryside. As her pregnancy progressed, they did what expectant parents do, bought charming little clothes, prepared the nursery, and brainstormed about baby names, names for a boy, who, for the nonce, they called Pudding. One day, when McCracken was nine months pregnant, the baby stopped moving around as much, not an unusual development in late pregnancy. But at the end of a surreal day of false reassurances and denial, a midwife at the local hospital made a horrific pronouncement, se fine.

On the death certificate, McCracken and her husband decided to keep Pudding as the baby's given name, since she says a new name would've been only a death name. McCracken diffuses what she admits is the improbable sentimentality of this gesture by dryly commenting, I'm glad we were in a foreign country. The French probably thought it was an ordinary Anglo-Saxon name like William or Randolph or George.

McCracken's unflinching fresh takes on all the predictable consequences of this tragedy earn her memoir a place among other tough-minded meditations on loss, most obviously Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking." About the first raw months of enduring conversations with friends who were determined not to bring up the baby, McCracken says, I was a character from an opera who might at any moment let loose with an aria. And generally, people tried to cover it up with conversational ragtime. People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably. Some tried extraordinary juggling acts with flung torches of chit-chat and spinning scimitars of small talk.

Finding herself pregnant within the year with another baby boy who eventually was delivered safely, McCracken concocts titles for the kinds of cautious magazines she'd preferred to see in her obstetrician's office. I wanted "Hold Your Horses" magazine, she says, and "Pregnant For the Time Being Monthly."

A few pages into reading, "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination," I began thinking of a wonderful former student of mine who'd fallen in love with the word liminal and would use it multiple times, no mean feat, in every paper he wrote. Liminal, meaning a threshold space, neither here nor there. The best thing about McCracken's memoir is that it vividly captures the confusion of being thrust into a nightmare that hasn't been categorized. When Mother's Day rolls around shortly after the still birth, McCracken wonders, was I a mother? It takes an extraordinary writer, and McCracken is one, to convey such an experience when words, let alone store-bought sympathy cards, don't exist for such a liminal state.

Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination" by Elizabeth McCracken. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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