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FALL PREVIEW / BOOKS

Coming to terms with a parent's greatest loss

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination A Memoir Elizabeth McCracken Little, Brown & Co.: 192 pp., $19.99

September 07, 2008|Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

"A stillborn child is really only ever his death. He didn't live: that's how he's defined. Once he fades from memory, there's little evidence at all, nothing that could turn up, for instance, at a French flea market, or be handed down through the family. Eventually we are all only our artifacts. I am writing this before our first child turns into the set of footprints the French midwives made for us at the hospital. . . . "

His name was Pudding, that's what his mother, Elizabeth, and his father, Edward, both writers, called him. That's what they put on what the French call his "certificat d'enfant sans vie." McCracken here remembers her pregnancy (during which the couple lived in France), his death, the horrible months that followed his death and the worried-filled pregnancy and birth of her second child, Gus. This is an intimate book -- McCracken does not spare us her anger, fear, frustration or despondency. It is also a wildly important book -- we do not live alongside the dead the way we ought to: We sweep them off to the margins as quickly as possible.

Writing, as every fiction writer who ever created a character knows, is a vivid, powerful, even multidimensional way to keep the ones we love alive. And finally, we rarely honor transitions in our lives -- the pivotal points that mark vectors -- the times when we marshal whatever wisdom we might have (hah!) before careening off in the next direction. We see them as still and uneventful, but McCracken proves they are anything but. She has written in the past about the couple's peripatetic lifestyle -- moving Bloomsbury-like from one rental to another, following grants and works-in-progress and teaching stints. Losing Pudding, as one friend writes sorrowfully in condolence, was a double-loss, an event that will always be linked for Elizabeth and Edward to France. They moved to England for a few months and then, after throwing Pudding's ashes into the sea off a well-loved beach from Edward's childhood, they move to the United States.

After Pudding's death, the author writes, "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 chitchat and spinning scimitars of small talk." She feels disoriented, flummoxed: " 'When,' I asked Edward . . . 'did we become characters in a Raymond Carver story?' " In many ways, McCracken's black humor, her sidekick, her modus operandi in all her books, helps her to live. Friends and family suffered alongside the couple, sending notes, letters and stories from their lives that McCracken also found comforting.

"No more talk of angels," she writes. "I can't stand the tendency to speak of dead children as such. I do not want him elevated to angel. I do not want him demoted to neverness. He was a person, that's all."

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