by ERIC FARWELL
On first blush it’s easy to mistake the stories in Rebecca Makkai’s Music for Wartime as being haunted by the past; the collection finds its spine in short, quasi-recollections inspired by Makkai’s Hungarian heritage and accounts of atrocity in the mid-1900s. Stories are marked by seemingly detrimental compromises made to undo those decisions. The question at the heart of each isn’t “but at what cost,” rather it’s “how late is too late?” History, like an extra on a film set, lurks behind the narrative, giving struggle and panic to those Makkai renders so beautifully.
Characters function as vessels for history, and the best pieces find a way to move them beyond the constraints of their story. The story “Cross,” for example, the protagonist has her sense of a new beginning post-divorce (a drafty house with little furniture) interrupted by a memorial site erected on her lawn. The co-mingling of realities and the way one is an obstacle to the other gives the characters unspoken nuance. In Makkai’s hands, these characters come from somewhere, even the nameless. The only misfires are those that lack clear rumination or connection, those that look to avoid any real sense of the past, or worse, don’t go deep enough.
In her novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, Makkai established her hallmarks of immigrant life, gay characters, and a sense of history that is often too much to bear. Here, different strands of them play out in unexpected and playful ways. Two gay artists live as renowned celebrities while one escapes fame to live as a refugee during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. A young boy has Casandra-like visions of a violinist’s past that cause him to pass out from their pain. Makkai upends things where you least expect, and reading her short fiction offers the same joys that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad did: just when we think we understand a person, we begin to see how wrong we are. In the case of the characters in Music for Wartime, someone wants to understand, and it’s up to them to turn away or embrace them like a beacon of light in all their uncertainty.
For all of her strengths as a writer — well-structured prose, strong plotting, a sense of grittiness and historical accuracy — Makkai occasionally turns up a weak offering. The magical appearance of Bach ends up being a bizarro version of The Puttermesser Papers by way of the clichéd I-was-using-you-to-get-pregnant trope. A story involving two gay old friends is overly obvious and lacks resolve. Interestingly enough, the best piece, “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”, is one that finds a middle-ground between her more rote offerings and her cleverest work. It’s a simple examination of a misunderstanding between an academic and a student over class participation and ethnicity, a character study really, and yet its mundane intricacies yield great treasure in the end. On its last page, after deconstructing the life of its academic young protagonist, it offers this:
In future years, when she told the story, she left out the part about Malcolm. It became instead the story of why she left Cyril College, of how she and Malcolm ended up at State, of how sweet Tossman had been to her, that year before he killed himself. Of how even in assessing all her misprisions, she’d still missed something enormous. But where had the signs been?
A search for signs of fate informs the book, especially in the fictional recounts inspired by her family, which are interspersed throughout between the “other” stories. At times, it’s hard to see the use in these quasi-anecdotes, as they’re hit or miss in terms of connecting to the collection. However, when they’re on point, they can work like gangbusters. One excerpt deftly handles three narratives,being a found bomb at a birthday party. It is the only piece that reads coldly, with Makkai/the speaker struggling to both accept and probe the events in question, yet taking the time (near exhaustively) to record them. Much can be made of the moral or thematic threads within the collection, but this work, “Suspension: April 20th, 1984,” stands against the grain. The stories here often end too softly, or come to a fairly neat resolve. Here, there’s a great deal of turmoil. Whether or not this is because it reads more personally, the narrator being an “I” rather than a “they,” is up for debate. Regardless, this short meditation on the lingering effects of war on otherwise untouched generations is a nice little punch in the kidneys.
Music flows in and out of stories, sound tracking different strands and forms of suffering. The violin in particular is used to express or mask heartache, sorrow, and longing. This use is subtle, and Makkai does an excellent job at getting things right in terms of portraying the act of playing, fingering, and emotion. Here, the concertos and quartet pieces function as another aspect of character, plastering a sort of emotional wallpaper up around them in their isolated worlds, both in a larger sense and in regard to their playing:
Aaron suddenly stumbled back into the consciousness of his own playing, and wished he hadn’t. His instinct had been carrying him along, but now he had to stop and think where he was, second guess, catch up, count. He felt everyone’s eyes on him except Radelescu’s; the old man was lost in the music. Radelescu did not close his eyes when he played, but he squeezed his face tight and gazed into the middle distance.
Ultimately, one can’t help but group things into categories, associate different ones that elevate or lower somethings credibility. Here, Makkai’s efforts are given more weight due to their relationship with death, terror, panic, and struggle, which are part of the Hungarian/Eastern European immigrant narrative. Each small world carved onto the page has a sense of something dark and profound nipping at its heels, just in the background where the characters avoid looking. The stories are richly detailed and well-crafted on their own, but they lack power.
In this respect, Makkai was smart to use the personal, albeit fiction mined from it, in order to give the collection a through line. We may well be equating the stories with profound meaning due to their correlation with one of the inescapable interim of atrocity in history, but perhaps that keeps us from missing its enormity while still marveling at how there had been no warnings.
Eric Farwell is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New Jersey. This is his first appearance on these pages. He has written for The Rumpus, Electric Literature and Critical Flame.
“The Stone Mill” – Atlas Genius (mp3)
“The City We Grow” – Atlas Genius (mp3)