Staff Pick: You Must Be This Happy To Enter
by Elizabeth Crane (Punk Planet Books)
You might have noticed that when you pick up a book or turn on the TV, the story always begins: "This is John, who is very unhappy. I'll show you why."
You Must Be This Happy To Enter is a collection of short fiction by Elizabeth Crane that focuses on a legitimate emotion that has been too long overlooked in our imaginations: happiness. This book unravels the myth that successful stories have to focus on people who feel miserable.
Crane's stories are filled with conflict, both amusing and tragic. Some characters have problems with no solution forthcoming from nature or science, but they persist in being happy anyway.
Many of these stories present the main character with an absurd dilemma and follow his or her efforts to solve it. For instance, the citizens of "Clearview" wake up one morning to find that their beds, walls, clothes, and every other material in town have inexplicably become transparent. There was no way for them to prepare for this unorthodox disaster, but that is what makes the characters' reactions so interesting. Nobody can go to work, school, or the grocery store without facing his fear of public nakedness; society is near collapse.
In "Betty the Zombie," another story that dives into reality from a fantastical beginning, Betty is bitten by an infected woman while shopping in a craft store. As her health deteriorates, her freedom of motion and ability to communicate are impaired. Betty's new problems with intimacy and her increasing desire to take a bite out of her husband further complicate her marriage, and she lands a spot on the reality TV show Relight the Fire of You. With the help of a life coach and the other women on the show (with problems ranging from over-clutter to murder), Betty does her best to put the pieces of her life and her limbs together again.
The collection is generously sprinkled with pop culture references and breathless anecdotes. At some points, the narrator seems close to ecstatic hyperventilation. "My Life Is Awesome! And Great" reads like an experiment in how far a narrator can push exclamation marks and enthusiasm for her not-so-great life.
Crane is engaging and fun to read. It's easy to imagine her telling you the story conversationally over coffee and bagels, then making you laugh so hard you can't eat your bagel.
For all of you literary buffs, Crane is what happens after postmodernism. Her approach in this collection is so fresh that there is not even a word for it yet.
I was lucky enough to meet Crane in person when she did a reading of "Betty the Zombie" in Memphis. I happily discovered that she has a real interest in crafts and watches reality TV as research for her stories. She also answered my biggest question about the book, my fear that somehow I'd been effortlessly taken by a cynic. Are the people in You Must Be This Happy To Enter really happy, or are they being ironically portrayed as happy?
They are really happy.
— Jennifer Gernon