I’m a newbie to Rebecca Makkai.
And sometimes I just like a good title.
I may think the cover is too abstract (who am I kidding, is this even a real thing?) or too geometric, and unless it’s a Penguin, too plain. Sometimes I don’t like a cover because it capitalizes on the female author by putting a woman’s curved spine and a man at the helm of her neck, but the book has nothing to do with glassy-eyed love and so much more to do with innocence or coming of age.
This was a tangent.
Over vacation, I read Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai. Like any good story collection, the reader discusses their favorites leaving gaps in the narrative for the fill-in of the next reader to use their story against this one on the page, or in cohesion with this one on the page if they find themselves in a character. For Music for Wartime this is going to be a bigger undertaking because I was fond of most of the stories in the collection, a few were outstanding, one wasn’t really legible (in the understanding sort of way), but it had pretty words, so this review will be categorial. I’m not sure how Makkai wanted this book of stories to be categorized, but I’m going to give my own categories (like I’m at a pool in the summer on the edge of a diving board before someone yells ice cream flavors and I have to yell “Moose Tracks” or “Half Baked” before I go under).
1 | Stories about women who haven’t yet used up their love (or don’t quite know where to put it).
In this category, we have the following stories:
- “The November Story”
- “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”
- “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”
- “The Museum of the Dearly Departed”
In these six stories, women are featured, in different spotlights, exposing their vulnerabilities in one way or another. In “The November Story,” a reality television producer who is balancing her relationship with a longtime girlfriend and an on-television love affair that she has winked into existence through gossip with both parts of the couple, must decide in what ways love becomes an action. Bach stars as a boyfriend. Yes, Johann Sebastian Bach, sans wig. Unfortunately, after seven children, he was still deemed a bit dry in the bedroom. (“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”) A woman finds her own racism in “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” but the reader comes to the realization that everyone has this inherit need to categorize their world, thus, this blog.
“The loneliest thing in the world is lying awake beside someone asleep.”
“Exposition” was one of my favorite stories in the collection, and some could argue that it doesn’t belong in this category. It is from the perspective of a soldier/spy recording his recent arrest of a woman playing illegal piano music. He talks about the intoxication of the music’s spell and how long it took him to arrest the performer, who was a woman named Sophia Speri, and the solider assumes knew that this was the “last concert of her career.” I love this story especially because of the guts, the singular darkness of the stage while she played, the trouble of secret invitations to a show that most knew would be interrupted. Mostly, I love the mental image of a black room that can still almost imagine the black silk shine of the piano at the center of the stage.
“I swear to you that it does not. You could chop us open from head to foot, you could pull our hearts from our chests, and you would not find the notes.”
“Cross” was about a musician, a one-time kiss that became a story, and a roadside cross. I’d never thought about a roadside cross as an intrusion in a person’s life (specifically if they own the land and think plastic flowers are tacky) so I found the general plot of this one inventive. The last story in the collection (and this category) features one woman who was living a lie without knowing it, and another woman who has drowned a truth with lies she tells herself. The neighbor woman (who is Jewish) is married to a Nazi collaborator (Hungarian police I believe) and the woman who has been lied to is shocked by this knowledge, as was I, as I read. I think I actually, literally, gasped, by the pool and my boyfriend gave me this look, but I couldn’t even say it aloud.
“Well, there were signs like crosses and runes and totems, and then there were the signs of the body. Those ones didn’t play fair, didn’t sit on your lawn and wait for interpretation.”
The concept of “Acolyte” is FANTASTIC. A grandmother who paints the faces of young women with stage makeup to make them look older in the dusk, so young, male soldiers don’t bother them in the street. I will read this story ALL DAY. #playlikeagirl
2 | Stories where I wanted a novel
- “The Singing Women”
- “The Miracle Years at Little Fork”
- “Other Brands of Poison (First Legend)”
- “Good Saint Anthony Come Around”
I believe in salvaging the voices of those about to be lost. I found myself connecting with most stories on Story Corp. I find other people’s letters fascinating. And if I could read every diary of every fourteen year old girl from this year, I would take it as an honor. That’s why I felt specifically tuned in with “The Singing Women,” the first story in the collection. A music producer goes to the land that his father had fled and records three women speaking and singing in their dialect. A dictator gets wind of the recordings, as dictators most often do (because art can almost never be done in secret, it begs for light), and sends his men to kill the women. However, the reader doesn’t actually get to experience the killing, the lives of the women before or after the recording, this is just a fable taste of the whole narrative. I want to know these women, I want to hear their endangered language, their songs of lamentation, their bellows from the corner of a garden.
A circus story, unless The Night Circus or Water for Elephants, okay, unless it’s in novel form, will always be my favorite. “The Miracle Years at Little Fork” might be my favorite story in the collection because it had everything; pregnant girls who must live in a Catholic sanctuary to birth a child that will be given away to a couple two doors down, completely unpredictable weather, a dead elephant. This was the closest Makkai came to magical realism, I think, in this book. Not that she was trying for that, but she hints at it with this story. Plus, the priest is just a likable character even though he questions his own faith. In fact, I liked the people of the town so much, I wouldn’t mind seeing them all again in a larger work.
When someone is fooled with writing ink, I’m down for the story. (And I want the whole thing).
“Good Saint Anthony Come Around” has an end twist that would have just knocked my butt out in a novel, but in a short story it was just a quick intake of breath and a, “fast, turn the page.” It’s the story of a man’s battle with aids, and his partner’s good luck, and both their acts as mentor and artist. I think this story had so much more to it than what could fit in a short story, but maybe it’s good as a short story because I can answer all of my own questions from the page. I don’t know. I would read an entire book about these two people and all of their friends as well. Particularly, the list of “goners” that one of the “goners” was keeping at the time of her own drug-related death.
“It’s chilling, how you can spend years with someone and be left with only the smallest scraps. That sentence was one of my scraps.”
3 | Stories that are blatantly about war and music (and not personal wars, or cultural wars)
- “The Worst You Ever Feel”
- “The Briefcase”
- “Everything We Know About the Bomber”
Of these three stories, I could do without “The Worst You Ever Feel.” Other than the violinist who was a prisoner of war, I had no fondness for the characters. However, people on Goodreads claim that this is the star story of the collection, so it’s still readable. “The Briefcase” is one of the longest stories in the collection and it talks about a prisoner who escapes a chain gang and takes over the life of the man that is captured to replace him, who leaves all his belongings on the street. This story has a pretty good plot twist, but it was almost expected to end the way it did. I can’t imagine just plucking someone off the street for a crime they didn’t commit and having them change their clothes and hook into a prison line.
War is insane.
“History was safer than the news, because there was no question of how it would end.”
“Everything We Know About the Bomber,” was really, really, really good. It captured my thoughts on basically every serial killer that I’ve ever tried to research. We all, as a media, want to know the tiny details of their upbringing, only to realize that they tell us nothing about why they did it, and even they themselves can’t sometimes explain their motives. I was actually moved by this story because it was a take on how the news is portrayed in our 24/7 breaking news era, but also how we dissect people of mystery.
“We agree, collectively, that the amount of time we have devoted to studying his skull shape, lineage, caffeine intake, and psychiatric history is neither helpful nor tasteful.”
4 | Stories that don’t belong in this collection
- “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart” because it’s predictable, boring, and obvious. I don’t believe in placing stories for political correctness especially when the character’s sexuality have very little to do with the actual story which is just about two people who don’t belong, and on the spectrum of unbelongingness, how one is farther away than the other.
- “A Bird in the House (Third Legend)” because it was short, and pointless. I get that she was going for the legend of omens, but it just didn’t quite get there.
- “Suspension: April 20, 1984,” I just don’t get you.
This collection took me a while to get through because as you can imagine a collection of stories about despair, or secrecy, or aftermath, can be quite dense, but it’s worth it. I think for the amount of stories in this collection and the scope of how Makkai was able to look at war as a verb and not a noun, it is impeccable.