(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Elizabeth Crane’s debut collection of sixteen short stories is filled with agoraphobic, overly analytic women who detach themselves from the world because of bad childhoods, odd fetishes and phobias, and a distrust of modern life in general. Mostly told from the first-person point of view, Crane’s stories unfold from the mouths of various female Holden Caulfields whose internal monologues remark on popular culture topics as diverse as support group spirituality and tattoo artistry. Though most stories rely heavily on Crane’s experimentation with form and style to create an edgy, postmodern ambiance, the characters within these stories also struggle with more old-fashioned concerns such as identity and its dissolution and the necessity for maintaining attachment to others within a worldview that privileges detachment. The combination of using new methods with an older sensibility for character development gives these stories their punch and readability, though when Crane pushes too far in either direction, the stories have difficulty sustaining their momentum.

The voices in Crane’s stories are breathy ones, unrestricted by traditional form, content, style, or grammar. Narrators make lists and outlines. Words tumble over themselves in run-on sentences, weak parallelism, and fragments as characters discuss topics such as casual sex, tattoos, and the Dave Matthews Band. Though almost every story has a different first-person narrator, the voices begin to sound alike, as if Crane’s universe contains multiple women who all live similar lives. For example, several of the stories feature a first-person narrator whose mother has died, though Crane makes no effort to show any additional interrelatedness between these stories. Furthermore, she relies very little on transitional devices or internal links within stories except in the most tangential of ways. Sometimes the associations seem as intuitive as the thought-process itself, a striving for a stream-of-consciousness logic that belies any writerly intrusion in the recording of the details.

To create further a sense of thought processes going by, Crane’s narrators often divert the momentum of the stories with asides and digressions. This effect can best be seen in “The Super Fantastic New Zealand Triangle,” which bears similarities to other novels such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) in its use of footnotes that add a richly layered back story within a frame text masquerading as the main one. In this story, a woman recalls a fantasy—and its unlikelihood—about a love triangle including herself and a semi-famous New Zealander actor she once met. The footnote section serves as narrative comment on the action of the story, adding particulars to the retelling of the narrator’s fantasy. Eventually, the specifics of the footnotes take precedence over the main text, revealing more interesting and telling detail than the sometimes ludicrous main story.

In this story and others, such as “The Intervention” and “The Archetype’s Girlfriend,” the digressive use of details attempts to show up the inherent inaccuracies of a master narrative, yet one of the dangers of such a method also frequently occurs: The story itself dissolves under the pressure of sustaining the digression. In “The Archetype’s Girlfriend,” for example, the listing of details about memorable girlfriends is so quirky and amusing that one forgets the basic premise of the story. “The Intervention” follows the whimsical actions of its main character, Alice, as she tries to figure out an approach to living which works for her. In the process, she details many anecdotes about various boyfriends who disappear from the narrative without comment. While the structure of all of these stories allows for, and remarks upon, the engagement of digression and detail, the story line is often sacrificed for the structural experiment.

A story that uses structural experimentation more effectively is “The Daves.” It has the composition of a formal outline as the narrator attempts to discuss why men named Dave have been bad relationship choices. The outline breaks down, as outlines are wont to do, and that is part of the point—the senselessness of formal structure as a method for uncovering any sort of real “truth.” In this case, the truth concerns the narrator’s tendency to date the wrong kind of guy and why. By listing pluses and minuses in a relationship accounts ledger, the narrator hopes to arrive at some final word on the subject. Previously, she had been assuming that all men are really alike, all “Daves.” The story then takes a surreal turn—as...

(The entire section is 1914 words.)