Picture a giant sized ceramic figurine (perhaps two stories high and with arms stretching the length of a football field): You Must be This Happy to Enter—at least according to the title story of Elizabeth Crane’s third collection of sixteen short stories, where time travel is possible and happiness is a crime. However, the cover of the book says something different—the figurine is split down the middle. Its arms are short—almost shrugging. I think that this picture is the more realistic representation of You Must be This Happy to Enter. It says to me: “It’s okay, you only have to be this happy; perhaps if you read the book, you will be happier.” And it’s right.
How would you deal with the following situations: You are a forty-plus year old mother of a newborn baby when, literally, over-night, he has grown into a man and asks you to call him Ethan Hawk? You are a four-year-old girl when suddenly the word “Blue” appears on your head; it won’t rub off, but the word will change sporadically on its own to kimono or itch or any other word in the dictionary? Would you be distraught? Would you worry relentlessly? Would you be patient? Would you have hope that things could change?
Crane’s characters channel their optimism as they face even the most bizarre circumstances—like when Betty gets bitten by a Zombie and becomes one of the undead, only to work out her issues on reality television in “Betty the Zombie.” As in the majority of her stories, Crane’s language is conversational yet authoritative—it’s on reality TV, why shouldn’t we believe her? In this story, the narrator takes on the role of your best friend telling you all about Betty who has joined the show Relight the Fire of You on Lifetime where a group of women with a variety of problems are chosen to live in a house together. In the house, the women work with counselors and a life coach to sort through their issues.
Most of the story is told as a summary and filled in by mini scenes that highlight key moments and pivotal points in Betty’s progress. One such moment is when Betty realizes that her over-spending issues are really a result of her pain of a childless marriage.
“…Betty says, ‘OOOHHHAAAAAAYYYIII BOOOOOO DAAAAAAAHH!!!’ Which the translator explains to the group is Betty saying, ‘Sometimes when Ed goes to work, I put the booties on the dog.’ Due to Betty’s childlessness and plus Boone the dog not being an entirely satisfactory baby substitute, she has been trying to fill a hole in herself with anything and everything” (Crane 28).
Eventually Betty is able to overcome her pre-zombie life issues and take on a new life…well, despite still being a zombie.
“Clearview” is told from a woman’s perspective as she recounts the reactions of her family and the people in her town of Clearview after almost everything that covers anything (except the ground or your skin) turns clear. This causes big problems, as you can imagine, when their clothes turn clear. People avoid face-to-face communication altogether because they are embarrassed to look at each other. Like so often is true in real life, it takes the willingness, faith, and honesty of a child to confront the things that adults avoid. In the end it is the narrator’s daughter, Astrid, who finally brings an answer to their problem in the form of a cardboard box.
In “The Glistening Head of Ricky Ricardo Begs Further Experimentation,” the narrator does some Hollywood matchmaking and searches for a love of her own by reaching inside her television set and pulling out the characters. Read to see how she and Rocket Dude El Toro are able to make their relationship work.
Not quite all of Crane’s stories end happily. “What Our Week Was Like” is a model telling of a typical college experience of binge drinking amongst a group of girls that eventually leads to alcoholism for the narrator. On the bright side, at least she recognizes the problem.
Elizabeth Crane has taken a few common themes such as avoiding social situations due to embarrassment, feeling empty, and looking for love and magnified them by placing them in the context of bizarre places or situations. In that way, her stories a lot like the reality-television shows and pop culture that is portrayed and melded into many of her stories. The situations aren’t real; they are not “reality” but they connect with us in these brief glimmers of emotional honesty and that is why we love them. And yet we can separate ourselves from them too. We might never identify ourselves as being an actual zombie but we can empathize with the feeling of emptiness. We might never live in Clearview or walk around in basically a clear plastic garment but there are times when all of us feel vulnerable and avoid social situations because of it. Yes, I know it sounds silly because this is fiction, and not even meant to be very realistic fiction, but, seriously, that’s the whole point. We can laugh at these characters because they aren’t us. We can learn from these characters because they aren’t us. It’s the quality of fiction that gives us that freedom and the quality of “reality” that makes us relate.
Crane is able to deliver undeniably funny, sometimes emotional, most times surreal stories that captivate your attention with their straightforward, quirky characters and unique situations. As many of the characters in You Must Be this Happy to Enter let us know, “Yeah, the world is not perfect, but, hey, we’re happy with what we’ve got. You should be too.”
About the author:
Karli Wilkinson is a Chicago writer and recent graduate of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. She aspires to continue discovering more about herself and the world around her every day.