I’ve been trying to write about Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination for three weeks. I’ve read it twice and I’m still having a hard time finding the words. I do want to make this statement: This is unequivocally the best book I’ve read so far this year. This carries more weight in the waning days of October than it does in February. If I read a book in the next two months that is better written, more moving, or more heartbreaking than McCracken’s memoir, I’ll probably be dead because that kind of beauty will surely cause my heart to quit functioning.
The first time I read An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination was in one greedy gulp. I was riveted to my chair for three hours unable to put it down. When I closed the back cover, the book rested in my lap while I blindly reached for some Kleenex. I was a sobbing mess of the huh-huh-huh can’t catch your breath variety. The weird thing was even while I was hyperventilating and trying to blow my nose, I was smiling at the same time.
McCracken labels her memoir as the happiest story with the saddest ending. This is a story about a dead baby and his grieving parents. But it’s also McCracken’s love letter to her husband, a thank you note to her friends, a family history for her healthy-second child, and a eulogy for the never-forgotten baby she carried for 41 weeks and 1 day before he died in-utero.
In the hands of a less skilled writer this story could have become maudlin, sentimental, and self-indulgent. But McCracken tells her story with a dry, dark humor and sober matter-of-factness that is more effecting than any over-wrought sentimentality could ever be. It is a book that is so well written with such simple clarity that I wanted to write down every other sentence so that I wouldn’t forget it. I scrawled things like:
“I’d devote myself to good works or bad habits.
No more talk of angels. 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.
From the time I was a child and learned what first person singular meant, I found even the phrase itself beautiful.
When, I asked Edward, did we become characters in a Raymond Carver story?
We ourselves didn’t pray. (Our religion was worry; we performed decades of it).”
I don’t care who you are– male, female, mother, father, childless — this is a book you should read. Besides being that sort of delicious mix of devastation and joy that marks our human experience, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination will teach you how to deal with the grief-stricken.
If the only thing that I got out of this book was how to deal with someone who has suffered a death, this book would be invaluable. But there is so much more here — so much that defies words and can only be experienced by reading.