David S. Atkinson: A Rumpus Book Club Member Reviews We Only Know So Much

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Elizabeth Crane’s We Only Know So Much focuses on the lives of a bunch of messed up people. Really messed up people, in fact. Okay, there’s a great deal more than that…but it’s a good spot to begin. Just take what Elizabeth Crane writes at the beginning of the book as an example:

Review: difficult daughter, know-it-all dad, son sweet and okay if a little weird, mom delayed potential/having affair, great-grandmother bitchy, granddad losing it. So we know where we’re starting.

I couldn’t have summed it up better myself.

Let’s expand a little though. The sweet and weird nine-year-old son? He sweetly and innocently gets his first girlfriend. The self-centered and nasty daughter? She realizes her life is nothing. The dad who loves what he knows so much that he constantly pours it out on anyone he can catch? He may be losing his memory. Let us not forget the mother. Her lover commits suicide and she never knew anything was wrong.

For me, the most interesting part of this book is how believably these characters get wrapped up in their own crisis and don’t notice those of the others. They smash their problems against each other’s in bizarre and heedless ways, such as when the mother is talking to the sweet but weird son about his little girlfriend and suddenly starts talking about her dead lover:

What it is is that Jean proceeds to tell her young son that she has met a man named James, and that he has died and that they had been very close friends and now she was very sad. That’s what she tells him the first time it comes up. Otis offers a solemn nod. He had learned the meaning of “died” two years earlier when his pet turtle Bishop stopped moving, although he still does not have the clearest impression of what any of this really means–love, death, sex, none of it. Otis hasn’t had his first boner yet, so the sex part of the equation perhaps mercifully, is absent. Nor does he appear to be even slightly traumatized by the idea that his mother has been spending time with another man, that’s how it appears to Jean, and she is correct.

And yet, though the characters are alone in their problems, their problems interact and effect each other. There are even times when the characters pull themselves out of their individual problems to notice each other and show that they still are a family with feelings for each other:

Priscilla is not prepared for this. Like, not even. Nor is she prepared for this in herself: she steps up. She’s completely grossed out, don’t get us wrong, the smell is awful, there’s a giant shit in a giant diaper and it’s for sure the grossest thing she’s ever seen. She would rather do a lot of things besides pick that diaper up off the floor, wipe her grandfather’s ass, and see his droopy balls, which are nearly down by his knees, no lie. But in this moment, she actually kind of wants to cry. Like for him. Like, what she wants to cry about is not how severely gross this moment is for her, or her fear of death or anything like that (which frankly she’s never understood, because if you’re dead aren’t you just dead and pretty obviously not worrying about much?). What she feels is genuine sadness for her grampa. That’s way new.

It is true that messed up characters are interesting. Granted, I suppose everyone is messed up, but the messed up parts of characters are generally their most interesting features. At the same time, reading about the everyday horrors that characters have to face (both in the world and in themselves) is not always pleasant. In fact, even when well written this can be a gut-wrenching, traumatizing experience. The real magic of this book for me is that Crane gives us the unvarnished parts of these characters, but the reading never became unpleasant. I was always eager for the next word.

Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun reading about such messed up people. Crane balances that wonderfully in We Only Know So Much. There is even delightful humor in places I did not expect. The characters go through bad times with their messed up selves, but I still had a good time as a reader. However imperfect the characters are, even more human in their imperfections, they felt like real people and I found myself caring intensely about them.

Gratifyingly, Crane does not simply set up difficulties at the start of We Only Know So Much and solve them all with neatly tied bows by the end. These characters have human problems, live with those problems, and change as time goes on. As in real life, some things eventually get resolved and some things do not. The book comes to a satisfying conclusion, but the characters have no artificial end in their lives. As the title suggests, there is only so much that we know, but what I knew when I got done reading was immensely satisfying and enjoyable. I highly recommend this book.


David S. Atkinson received his MFA from the University of Nebraska. His novel in short story form, “Bones Buried in the Dirt,” is forthcoming from River Otter Press. He spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.

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