In the last four years, Rebecca Makkai has published two witty, intelligent novels: “The Borrower,” about a librarian and her favorite 10-year-old patron, who embark on a road trip to escape his overbearing, conservative parents, and “The Hundred-Year House,” about an artist colony, family secrets, and what it means to dedicate one’s life to literature. Both novels are characterized by a striking blend of whimsy and poignancy, elegy and ebullience, a blend found also in Makkai’s excellent debut collection of stories, “Music for Wartime.”
Written over a 12-year period, the 17 stories gathered here (four of which were anthologized in “The Best American Short Stories”) demonstrate an impressive range. They are variably set in World War II-era Europe, New York City and Chicago at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and present-day college campuses. Their characters include a lesbian reality show producer, a dead circus elephant and the small town reverend charged with disposing of her body (“The Miracle Years of Little Fork”), elderly Holocaust survivors, and an ambitious young realtor who takes J.S. Bach as her lover after he emerges from her old piano (“Couple of Lovers On A Red Background”). While some stories are straightforwardly realistic and others wildly fantastical, all are witty, rueful, and wise.
Amid the variety, several themes predominate: permanence and transiency, weight and weightlessness, memory and memorialization. Makkai counters the giddy sense of buoyancy that comes with love, success, or the possibility of reinvention with the threat of imprisonment both literal and figurative, the deadness of static, stunted lives, a crushing sense of responsibility, guilt, and post-traumatic stress. She juxtaposes flight with falling, transcendence and metamorphosis with the limitations imposed by stubborn, intransigent reality. At the same time, Makkai emphasizes the insubstantial quality of our world: Buildings are razed or fall to the ground (9/11 informs more than one of these stories); neighborhoods change; people flee their native countries. Individuals mourn the loss of familiar places, and of more: their romantic partners (one character calls her boyfriend “my almost-ex. My ex-in-progress”), their jobs, their health, their sanity, their sense of identity.
What role art can play in helping us hold on to, preserve, or sanctify fleeting experiences, dying cultures, and lost people is one of Makkai’s primary themes. From her opening epigraph, she explores how art can offer succor when the world is full of suffering, how it can restore us by lifting “the heavy and the weary weight / of all this unintelligible world” (lines from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” a poem cited or alluded to several times in the book).
“Unintelligible” is a key word for Makkai, used throughout the story “Exposition,” which reads like a taped testimony by an unnamed, mysterious survivor of an unspecified crime or tragic historical event. Other characters, too, confront unintelligibility of various kinds: languages they can’t understand, clues they can’t decipher, bizarre dreams that resist easy interpretation. Strange omens abound; signs are missed; incorrect judgments rendered. In “
In “November Story,” Makkai mercilessly skewers the myriad manipulations of a reality television producer, but her ultimate point is not so much that reality telePainted Ocean, Painted Ship,” an English professor who shoots an albatross, mistaking it for a goose, laments “how easy it was to make assumptions, how deadly your mistakes could be. How in failing to recognize something, you could harm it or kill it or at least fail to save it.” In the collection’s final story, “The Museum of the Dearly Departed,” when a woman discovers that her fiance’s first wife was not only not dead, as he’d told her, but still his wife and lover, she becomes simultaneously “gumshoe, archivist, bereaved.” The essential unknowability of other people, and the ways we often remain mysteries even to ourselves, shadow Makkai’s characters.vision is false as that what we call “real life” is strangely vulnerable to falsification. Her characters often feel like their own lives seem fictitious — some feel “like awkward actors with bad scenery,” others quote poetry to mask their emotions, a woman meeting her ex-fiance in a little café “couldn’t help feeling she was in a movie. She’d watched it a thousand times.” In a universe where art may be more true (if not more real) than life, how do we commit to action or judgment?
Makkai directly addresses these questions in three interpolated pieces based on her own Hungarian family’s experience; these pieces were first published in Harpers as nonfiction. While they do shed further light on the themes of “Music for Wartime,” they feel a bit out of place here. Nonetheless, I look forward with great anticipation to the book she says she wants to write one day about her family, and to anything else this immensely gifted writer produces.
Music for Wartime
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 240 pp., $26.95
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’