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A Chronicle Of Pregnancy — And Loss

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Elizabeth McCracken's new memoir, An Exact Replica Of A Figment Of My Imagination, details the devastating loss of the author's stillborn baby. Maureen Corrigan offers a review.

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.

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Grief And Longing For A 'Figment' Of Imagination

Cover of Elizabeth McCracken's 'An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination'
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
By Elizabeth McCracken
Hardcover, 184 pages
Little, Brown
List price: $19.99
Author Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken is a graduate of and faculty member at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Tom Langdon hide caption

toggle caption Tom Langdon

For nine months, Elizabeth McCracken's first pregnancy resembled the stuff of a Diane Lane comedy. A quirky, almost 40-year-old writer becomes pregnant while on sabbatical with her husband in Paris. Experts at gestating novels, the two of them stutter-step into childbirth. They move to a small French village and get a midwife. They lay off the cigarettes and wine. Learning that they're having a boy, they give him an adorable nickname: Pudding.

And then, little more than a week past her due date, McCracken is told that Pudding has quietly died in utero. Like nearly 1 in every 200 pregnancies, McCracken's has ended in stillbirth. In this wrenching memoir, the author of the hilarious story collection Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry (1993) and an unforgettable novel, The Giant's House (1996), plunges readers into the void left behind when all that future-thinking — "here is where he will sleep; here is what he will wear" — runs into biological malfunction.

At first, McCracken is stunned by how matter-of-fact her loss feels. "Nothing had changed," she writes of the days after. "We'd been waiting to be transformed, and now here we were, back in our old life." As they resume their routine of writing and traveling, however, the Doppler wave of their dashed expectations broadsides them — hard, this time. They realize they want to try again.

Almost exactly one year after Pudding's death, McCracken successfully gave birth to a healthy baby boy. But the arrival of one child does not cancel out the lost possibility of another. In An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, the writer brilliantly reveals how grief, in a way, is like an act of imagination. Even though McCracken has a new son to care for, the life she envisioned with and for Pudding lingers, eternally and longingly suspended in an alternate universe.

In pushing back against the silence that surrounds stillbirth, McCracken will no doubt provide great solace to parents who have suffered similarly. But her book also beautifully does what only literature can. It takes that broken, imperfect imaginary world and gives it a permanent, perfect home.

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