“She can get kind of irritated,” Elizabeth Crane writes, “with the whole metaphor thing they seem to be all about.”
Crane is writing about Betty the Zombie, the eponymous protagonist of the second entry in You Must Be This Happy to Enter, a wickedly smart, hilarious, and ultimately devastating new collection of short stories, out in February from Punk Planet, an imprint of Akashic Books. The source of Betty’s irritation is—well, let’s take a step back.
After becoming a zombie, Betty finds herself on a reality show: She lives in a mansion with other women who are working out their “issues” with a life coach; whoever overcomes her issues is able to leave the show victorious. The other residents of the mansion include Gloria, a murderess; Marny, a prostitute; and Ruthann, a woman who clutters. But the contestants aren’t the source of Betty’s irritation: The life coaches and their “metaphors” are—their pseudo-profundities, their blithe faith that unhappy people can be made happy in the course of a ratings season, and that all of it can make for fine television. Earlier on, the contestants are made to play a round of Electric Fence Limbo, which, Crane writes, “is exactly what it sounds like.” None of them emerge unscathed, and Gloria suffers burns on her stomach. At the end of the exercise, the life coach asks the contestants what the game means. “I don’t think it means shit,” Ruthann says, sharing Betty’s irritation. “I think it means Gloria got electrocuted on TV.”
In the course of the book’s 183 pages, I laughed—really laughed, out loud—a total of 88 times, and that doesn’t count the giggles and snickers. But Crane’s criticisms are serious, as the book tears through reality TV, pop psychology, hipster detachment, academia, organized religion, and gentrification, all of which and more are held up for intense scrutiny and often quick evisceration. It’s difficult to imagine any reader not getting burned at least once, which I mean as a big compliment.
It’s not all dismissal, though. Crane’s protagonists are smart and worldly but not ironic; they’re willing to believe that maybe there are decent answers out there to the tough questions, and it’s worth spending a few of the decades they have on this planet pursuing them. They even have the gall to suggest that the quest itself might make them happy—much of the tension in Crane’s stories comes from the friction between her smart-yet-content characters and the smart-but-miserable people they encounter.
In “What Happens When the Mipods Leave Their Milieu,” Shane Mipod, a comic-book artist, is made a faculty member of a well-regarded college on the strength of an award-winning graphic novel he’s written. It turns out, however, that the members of his department revere him because they believe his work to be ironic; when he explains to them at a cocktail party that his work is completely sincere, he’s fired. But the true punch line of the story is that Shane never even gets angry. In “Sally (Featuring: Lollipop the Rainbow Unicorn),” the narrator writes that the story’s possibly perfect protagonist “was disappointed in the world, a bit, but not in a dark despairing, Oh, I’ll just go mope around to a Morrissey record teenager kind of way, [but] in a You know, I might be able to do a little something about this kind of way.” Like George Saunders or Dave Eggers, Crane is often satirical and sarcastic, but she’s never a misanthrope. “I realize you’re fine now,” Sally’s narrator says to us, the readers, “but there were some ineffective years. We both know it.” The narrator isn’t judging us. She’s right there with us.
What I mean is this: You Must Be This Happy to Enter is, in the end, unapologetically sincere and idealistic, generous, and brave. The last story, “Promise”—a letter of almost unbearable sadness and hope, written by an expectant mother to her child—really got me, but it was just the end of a strong thread that ran through the entire book, of people taking a long, clear look at the difficulties of the world, large and small, and not flinching. “I will love you so hard,” the mother says to her coming child, and you know she means it. Just try to stop her.