When the Messenger is Hot is a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Crane, Chicago resident and writing teacher at Northwestern University. While her work has been published in the Sycamore Review, Sonora Review and the Chicago Reader, among other publications, this is her first book.
Relationships are the axes around which these stories revolve. Single women are the central figures, humorously fumbling through a perplexing dating scene. Crane approaches the subject of relationships, specifically the dating relationships of adults, with humor and fortitude. In this sense, the stories truly sing. Her playful approach to what is so often a distressing subject provides the reader with much to laugh at, and presents us with an honest view refreshingly free of bitterness or regret.
The first story in the collection, “The Archetype’s Girlfriend,” sets the tone—a certain breathlessness associated with secrets revealed between friends, combined with a verbal accuracy that generates the sort of heat capable of burning away everything superfluous. The story presents an exceedingly descriptive rendering of a type of person (female) we have all encountered (or been) at one point or another. She is someone unforgettable whose quirky, out-of-sync habits make her simultaneously incomprehensible and irresistible. Short or tall, big or small, her attraction lies in contradiction and the power of tease. She is like the grapes in the myth of Sisyphus, always just out of reach. She’s someone ordinary, almost clichéd; life becomes mythic in the eyes of the man who loves her. “[She] listens to some kind of noise that she plays passionately for you,” Crane writes, “and tries to explain in detail, and you will listen patiently to both the explanation and the alleged music as one or the other drives a power tool through your brain, and she will make love to you after this, but it might hurt.” The story sums up the stupid suffering we are willing—even happy—to endure for the sake of companionship, for the thrill of romance.
In “The Daves,” Crane writes about a character who cannot get away from dating men with the name Dave. She methodically creates a list tallying their relative attributes, titled “A Brief History of the Occurrence and Relationship Trajectory of Each Dave.” She seems reluctant, however, to choose. The interchangeable quality of their names relates more to her than it does to them. All things being equal, she sees pluses and minuses in every case. In the end, she ends up alone, only to meet another nice new guy named—you guessed it—Dave. In the end it’s a pseudo-subversive treatise on the nature of men (as viewed by women): They may pique our curiosity, but, “Well, they kind of are all the same.”
There is an overarching sense of absurdity in these stories. In “Year at a Glance,” a woman must confront her mother’s illness and eventual death. In a series of contradictions characteristic of such a time, the seesaw of hope and dashed hope, the woman moves toward the heartbreaking death of her mother: “I tell her all the things I’m grateful for that she’s done for me and I do not take it personally when she says only, That’s nice, sweetheart, and then falls asleep in the middle of my long list instead of bursting into tears of gratitude herself followed by a deep and profound TV-movie moment of near-death enlightenment and reconciliation.” The depth of such common self-absorption is both appalling and funny. As she begins to chronicle time since the death of her mother, she writes, “Month one: I join a support group and I notice that I am now marking time in ‘months since.’ Month two: I resent anyone who still has mom and speaks about it openly in front of me. Month three: I notice that the people in the support group don’t appreciate my sense of humor…”
The story that best exemplifies Crane’s quick wit and striking penchant for self-evaluation is “The Super Fantastic New Zealand Triangle.” In it, she describes a woman who fantasizes about an old friend who is married with three young children and living halfway around the world in New Zealand. She imagines, in turn, love, unrequited love and romance. Each significant disclosure is qualified with a footnote, a technique acknowledged by the author as “shameless off-ripping” of the work of David Foster Wallace. With 19 footnotes in 10 pages, ideas spin off tangentially to the story, filling out thought patterns that we can recognize as a result of having minds of our own, but have rarely seen given life in print.
“She’s aware,” Crane writes, “that in addition to the impropriety inherent in disclosing the fantasy, even just to the man who the fantasy is about, this particular fantasy might possibly portray her as being somewhat unbalanced. So it’s a private, karmically correct, inherently impossible imaginary scenario.” Ridiculous, funny, astute.
The stories in When the Messenger is Hot resolve themselves with ellipses. We are left with the sense of things to be continued. Crane writes about the parts of relationships that wear us out and she makes us laugh. Her gift is hilarity, perseverance in the face of time, a chuckle and the sense of joy that comes from our willingness to meet, to try to connect, and to get to know one another.