Elizabeth McCracken on the Mysteries of Married Life

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?

The Atlantic

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