Elizabeth McCracken on the Mysteries of Married Life

“Weddings are public; marriages are supposed to be private, or so I always thought.”

Elizabeth McCracken
Matilda Harvey / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: Read Elizabeth McCracken’s new short story, “The Irish Wedding.”

The Irish Wedding” is taken from Elizabeth McCracken’s forthcoming collection of stories, The Souvenir Museum (available on April 13). To mark the story’s publication in The Atlantic, McCracken and Ena Alvarado, a former assistant editor of the magazine, discussed the story over email. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ena Alvarado: Your story, “The Irish Wedding,” takes place in rural Ireland. The setting is rich with tactile imagery. As you conceived the story, were the details of place and plot always entwined?

Elizabeth McCracken: So much of our personalities is based on context—geographical or social or architectural. So from the start I wanted everything unfamiliar to Sadie to press down upon her. The house described here is very much based on the former home of some dear friends, and having a space I could walk my characters through made a big difference: I was with them on that Vermeer floor, in that kitchen with the bathroom off of it. Physical details are one of my favorite things to read about in fiction, so I tend to put them in. Yes, of course, yearning, love, existential crises—but I always want to know about the bar of soap and the smell of dog and what kind of pants people are wearing.

Alvarado: In “The Irish Wedding,” what seems to be true is often not. Early on, Sadie learns that her boyfriend, Jack, is actually named Lenny. A dog referred to as “Shithead” is, in fact, called Seamus. Jack’s mom, Sadie is made to believe, is suffering from gout. It later turns out that she isn’t. Why are reality and first impressions at such odds in the story?

McCracken: Isn’t that always how it is, when you meet somebody’s family? Family life is built upon such a framework of running jokes, old resentments, and personal stubbornness that it’s illegible, at least at first, to anyone new.

Alvarado: The scene most saturated with ambiguity also happens to be the funniest. Jack’s father enters the kitchen and seemingly addresses Sadie—the “lovely present that Len has brought.” The whole family joins in on the praise. In truth, it’s all a dirty quip. They are joking about the feces visibly afloat in the toilet. Tellingly, Jack never steps in to save Sadie. What does this moment reveal about their relationship?

McCracken: That’s a really interesting question—in some ways, Jack also wishes that Sadie would step in and save him. So that’s what it reveals, how inscrutable our emotions can be, especially in a crowd. Sadie knows she’s an interloper, but she doesn’t yet understand that he, too, feels like an interloper in his own family, a family that at that moment is trying to humiliate him. Jack knows his job is to act as though it doesn’t bother him.

Alvarado: Family constitutes an intimidating force in the story. Around his dad and siblings, Jack becomes, again and again, unrecognizable and distant to Sadie. How does family shape our inner lives?

McCracken: Like a corset and a torso, a chain-link fence and a persistent tree, a Bundt pan and a bowlful of batter; by erosion, constriction, neglect, lack of planning, surfeit of planning. In other words: I don’t know.

Alvarado: The man who used to own the bride and groom’s house died alone, looking at a portrait of the Virgin Mary. He never married. Coincidentally, Sadie and Jack dress for the wedding in his former room. Readers might interpret this as an omen of some kind. What does marriage forebode in the world of “The Irish Wedding”?

McCracken: It forebodes what marriage does in real life: everything and nothing. Weddings are public; marriages are supposed to be private, or so I always thought. I have a friend who recently seemed surprised that my marriage was a happy one, since I’d never explicitly said so; it never occurred to me to characterize my own marriage to other people. I think there are people who are happily married and people who are happily single and people who are miserably one or the other. The old man who died alone in the house might be the happiest character in the story, or he might not be.

Alvarado: As the saying goes, “He who laughs last, laughs best.” After Sadie lives through an entire day of taunting sarcasm and threatening provocations, she seems to get the upper hand. What should we make of her uncontrollable laughter, and where does it leave her with the Valerts?

McCracken: The single most autobiographical detail in this story is that I was once at such a wedding (the wedding of friends, not in-laws), and the best man said, “The bride and groom will now cut the cheese,” and I guffawed at what seemed to me to be a very funny joke, and I was the only one. But I pulled myself together instantly, unlike Sadie. You’re right, this is the moment in the story when Sadie becomes herself. She’s bound up her personality for the whole story, and here the binding splits and her real self becomes visible, and it’s a relief to her and also to Jack.

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