Peopled with a zombie-wife on a reality TV show, a time-traveling happiness activist, a forehead-reading clairvoyant and townspeople who awaken to find that everything has “turned clear,” Elizabeth Crane’s You Must Be This Happy to Enter is a collection that aspires to steep the reader in the absurdity of a society that is basically our own, only more so.
In this, Crane’s efforts are to be applauded. Some of the most revelatory contemporary fiction — that of George Saunders and Karen Russell, for instance — is successful precisely because it constantly unbalances reality. Unfortunately, Crane’s wacky disjunctions and narrative gimmicks often wear thin, simply mirroring pop culture back to the reader without providing many insights about it.
In opener ‘My Life is Awesome! And Great!’, Crane’s frenzied narrator tells of being rejected from multiple reality TV shows — a paper-thin rendering of self-delusion, hammered home for the imperceptive by a steady stream of exclamation points. In ‘Emmanuel’, two parents find that their infant son has transformed overnight into “post-Uma/Before Sunset Ethan Hawke.” Here Crane exhausts the joke: Her toddler-minded Hawke reads White Noise and wonders, “Are we all going to die?” He enrolls in high school. He falls in love with an underage barista and is charged with statutory rape. (And it’s funny — because he’s Ethan Hawke.)
When Crane pauses long enough in her game of Zeitgeist Bingo to deal with characters rather than punch-lines, she surprises the reader with moments of genuine perception. An early-phase gentrifier avoids personal culpability by keeping tabs on the neighbors. A soon to be adoptive mother narrates parenting strategies to her future progeny. A woman obsessively holes up in her perfect boyfriend’s lemon-scented closet until discovering the restorative qualities of a private dressing room at Barney’s. In each, Crane empathetically highlights the personal, rather than opting for larger parodies of social conditions. It’s smaller fare, perhaps, but far more substantive than the author’s preferred servings of Pop and Kool-Aid.