Rebecca Makkai attained the height of the literary firmament when “The Great Believers,” her novel about a group of friends grappling with the AIDS epidemic, was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize, a finalist for the National Book Award, and one of the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2018. Her much anticipated follow-up, “I Have Some Questions for You,” is a very different but equally great accomplishment. It is at once a campus novel, a piercing reflection on the appeal and ethics of the true crime genre, and a story of Me Too reckoning. It is also the most irresistible literary page-turner I have read in years.
Makkai’s most distinctive literary feature is her blend of intelligence, whimsy, and wisdom, an endearing yet bracing mix that characterizes her Twitter feed as it does her fiction. That blend has never matched more suitable matter than in “I Have Some Questions for You,” whose narrator, Bodie Kane, possesses a voice of crackling, effervescent wit shadowed by a profound understanding of human frailty and the omnipresent threat of loss. Like her creator, Bodie is whip-smart, hilarious, preternaturally attuned to the tiny absurdities of everyday life and the quirks of personality. She describes a high school student as talking “like an Oberlin freshman who cared deeply but hadn’t fully worked things out,” another as “a hugely creative kid who’d gotten the unfortunate message early on that there was always a right answer,” and a former classmate as “a bit socially desperate but adept at buying friends with vacations and gifts.”
Now 40, a mother of two living in California, Bodie has risen from a childhood scarred by poverty and trauma to become a “sometime college professor with a lauded podcast” called “Starlet Fever,” about how Hollywood “chewed ... up and spat ... out” women.
In January 2018, she returns to Granby, the New Hampshire boarding school she graduated from almost 23 years earlier. There, she’ll teach classes on film studies and podcasting during a two-week winter intersession. Invited by her high school pal, Fran, who’s now a Granby history teacher married to a woman who works in admissions, Bodie is eager to hang with her friend, show off her successful life to former teachers and administrators, and connect with Yahav, her part-time lover who’s teaching at BU Law for the year.
Bodie’s school years at Granby marked the beginning of her climb upward. Sent there from “a tiny town in Indiana” by a beneficent and wealthy local family after the deaths of her father and brother and the ensuing breakdown of her mother, Bodie existed uneasily at Granby, bonding with fellow misfits, envying those more socially adept than she, and finding a tentative identity as a theater techie and Girl Friday for the school’s adored music teacher, Denny Bloch.
But during her senior year, her former roommate, Thalia Keith, was murdered, her body found floating in the school’s swimming pool; the school’s athletic trainer, a black man named Omar Evans, was convicted. The case was covered by Rolling Stone in an article that made Thalia’s classmates “livid over its errors and assumptions”; nine years later, “Dateline NBC” “dragged everything up again.” More recently, the sordid matter has attracted the attention of Internet sleuths on Reddit and YouTube who argue that the police “bungled the case” by ignoring other viable suspects and zeroing in rashly on Omar.
The murder happened right after a campus production of Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot,” in which Thalia played two featured roles and for which Bodie served as “both stage manager and tech director.” Years later, a grainy video of the production was shared extensively online. Bodie watches it for the first time in 2016 and begins to reconsider her own assumptions and question her memories. When one of her students decides to make a podcast addressing “unanswered questions” about the case, Bodie is at once nervous and grateful. She dares to hope that she can resolve nagging doubts about Omar’s guilt and guilt over her own role in securing his conviction.
Guilt, responsibility, complicity, boundary-blurring — all of these become relevant to Bodie’s personal life when her estranged husband and the father of her children gets canceled on the Internet because of a relationship he’d had years earlier with a much younger woman who now sees him as “predatory” and their connection as “grooming.” Meanwhile, at Granby, Bodie becomes obsessed with discovering who was responsible for what happened that long-ago night, “diving down online rabbit holes” and interviewing former classmates. Thalia’s friends, teachers, and boyfriend all become viable suspects, and Bodie spins a series of convincing stories about how and why each could have committed the crime.
Makkai’s writing is textured and precise. She gets all the ‘90s details — from Sassy magazine to pining over Kurt Cobain — deliciously right. Her encyclopedic knowledge of true crime informs the novel at every turn; real-life cases, perpetrators, and victims from Lacey Peterson to Nicole Brown Simpson, the Cleveland kidnappings to Oscar Pistorious populate these pages. Omar’s coerced confession is reminiscent of those made by “Making a Murderer”’s Brendan Dassey and the West Memphis 3; the Adnan Syed/Hae Min Lee case featured on the hit podcast “Serial” is a major influence. #MeToo moments appear, from Trump’s grabbing women by the p**** to the allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. But none of this feels heavy-handed or merely modish. Rather, Makkai tackles thorny questions about the media, the law, gender, race, and class via these emblematic examples.
“For the journalists of the future,” Bodie tells us, Thalia’s death in juxtaposition with the “Camelot” performance “would mean endless easy metaphors. Boarding school as kingdom in the woods, Thalia as enchantress, Thalia as princess, Thalia as martyr.” “I Have Some Questions for You” ponders the nature and value of metaphor and muses on the fallibility of memory, the ease with which false narratives take shape, the human predilection for storytelling, and the way that stories can clarify and illuminate or mislead and misdirect. That Makkai’s ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological deliberations find form in an exquisitely suspenseful and enormously entertaining story makes her work a beguiling reflection of the conundrum it so beautifully anatomizes.
I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 448 pp., $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy” and “The Critic’s Daughter.”