Writing About Loss: A Review of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
My favorite non-fiction genre is memoir and since the Janes’ theme this month is memory, I thought I’d share one of the most powerful memoirs I’ve ever read, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken.
I keep returning to this book to figure out it’s craft secrets. Most memoirs can be viewed as dealing with some kind of loss. The loss of weight, the loss of abuse, the loss of the person the author used to be. McCracken’s book is a memoir about death, the ultimate loss. It obviously have a sad and known ending, so what are the tools this author use to keep people reading? How does she move the story forward without overwhelming the reader by the weight of the topic? The methods she uses in her memoir, works well in fiction too.
The book is about McCracken’s first child being stillborn. Her very first line lets her readers know what to expect. “Once upon a time, before I knew anything about the subject, a woman told me that I should write a book about the lighter side of losing a child. (This is not that book.)” That first chapter is very short (2 pages)–maybe to make sure she doesn’t lose her readers–it ends on “It seemed like the saddest thing I’d ever heard, back before I knew how sad things could get.” The next chapter begins with “A child dies in this book: a baby. A baby is still born.” Then a few sentences later, “A baby is born in this book, too.”
With these few sentences, McCracken sets up the expectations for her readers. They now know this is story about grieving for a dead child, but amongst the darkness of this topic, there might be hope because “A baby is born in this book, too.” McCracken then widens the topic and thereby the readership that the book might appeal to. She says, “…lighter things will happen to you, birds will steal your husband’s sandwich on the beach, and your child will still be dead, and your husband’s shock will still be funny, and you will spend your life trying to resolve this.” The book is not just about losing a child, it’s about living with and surviving tragedy and grief.
McCracken’s timeline is not linear, but she keeps the narrative frame focused on how she learned to process her grief. The story starts at the end, we already know that her baby will die, she touches briefly on the difficulties of dealing with birth when you know that your baby is dead. McCracken and her husband lived in France at the time. She describes what it was like to return to their house without the baby they expected. Throughout this narrative, she drops in details showing the long term effects of grief as when she describes no longer remembering any French words because they were “…removed with the blunt-force trauma of those days.”
She then takes a giant step back in the timeline and describes meeting her husband, why they ended up moving to France, and discovering (in France) that she was pregnant. And then she skips forward and lists how her second pregnancy was different from her first. “Here’s what else we didn’t do when I was pregnant the second time. Knock on wood. Light candles. Tell ninety percent of the people we knew that I was pregnant. Have an amniocentesis. Pick up pennies….Pick names. Find out the babies gender. Come up with an in utero name: the kid was ‘the kid’ or ‘who ever it is.’” This is in stark contrast to her first child being referred to as “Pudding” throughout the story. To McCracken and her husband, the first baby was very much a person.
How does an author characterize someone that’s never born? There can’t be any descriptions of what they look like, what they say, or their mannerisms. McCracken makes her readers care about Pudding not only sharing his name, but also showing the progression of her pregnancy and how he became a person to her and her husband. And she describes the place they lived in France and the people they socialized with. Both the place and the people are characterized by showing how they relate to Pudding, thus enforcing the readers impression of him as a person.
Just over half way through the book, McCracken skips back in time to describe the moment when she and her husband scattered the baby’s ashes and observes, “It probably sounds ridiculous to observe that I was at that moment already a day or two pregnant….If this moment appeared in a movie, I would spit on it for its nauseating symbolism, the author taking liberties with probability to Give Hope to the Audience. I’m a cynic.” That same chapter ends with “Closure is bullshit.” and at the beginning of the next chapter, the timeline is back to the moment of discovering the second pregnancy. From here on in the book, the two pregnancies are compared and contrasted with each other. As “the kid” becomes a reality to the McCrackens, Pudding is remembered and grieved, becoming more and more of a person because he’s thought of as an older brother, not a dead baby. McCracken shows what she promised her readers on a page in the beginning of the book, “The love of the first magnifies the love for the second, and vice versa.”
The length of the chapters of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination are altered and heighten the emotional punch. There are longer chapters with emotional scenes like having to move to another hospital when the doctors discover that Pudding is dead, because the maternity ward is only for “live babies.” In between these longer chapter, McCracken pauses the story for a few paragraphs—the short chapters are usually only a page and a half to two pages—and offers reflection of what she described in the preceding chapter. They work as breather moments before the readers embark on another emotionally charged passage.
Only forty pages from the end of the book, right before she writes about the successful delivery of her second child, McCracken describes the details and the shock of finding out that her baby had died and then the horror of having to go through labor anyway. By now, Pudding and the McCrackens are well known to the readers and the impact of this scene therefore much stronger. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is some of the most brilliant and powerful emotional story telling I’ve ever read.