Rebecca Makkai’s Music for Wartime is a masterful collection of short stories, the author’s intelligence and wit shining through in beautiful and insightful prose. Written over a period of twelve years, most of these stories have been published elsewhere, including four stories chosen for Best American Short Stories. Makkai is primarily interested in searching for meaning, creating connections and investigating causality. The stories consider and question their subjects from many different angles; the best stories in this collection leave those questions unanswered. These are the stories that ask to be read multiple times, stories that resonate and haunt.
Makkai has published two novels—The Borrower (her debut in 2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014)—and a novelist’s sensibility infuses this collection. The stories are big in scope and consideration; each story thoroughly investigates a particular place and time. In “The November Story,” the narrator deals with the dissolution of a relationship while she works on a reality show that seeks to romantically link contestants; Makkai reads an abbreviated version of this story on NPR which can be accessed here. Toward the end of the story, the narrator discusses what will need to be done to make the landscape look, in September, as though it is November: “We’ll spray some of the remaining leaves yellow, some red. We’ll make everyone wear a coat. We’ll kill the grass with herbicide. It’s sick and it’s soulless, but it’s one of the addictive things about my job: Here, you can force the world to be something it’s not.” This tight and complicated link between artifice and reality is considered in almost every story. Many of the protagonists are artists, and we see them grapple with their art and how it reflects, mirrors or distorts the real world.
The collection is primarily fiction, although three short nonfiction pieces about Makkai’s family that originally appeared in Harper’s are interspersed throughout the stories. This allows the collection to be underscored with the understanding that fiction and nonfiction are inexorably connected and also serves to tie the fictional stories even more closely to the world they inhabit. Because the short nonfiction pieces are titled as legends, they also connect Makkai’s work to fable. Indeed, the first story in the collection, a short entitled, “The Singing Women,” ends with the following lines: “(But I’ve made it sound like a fable, haven’t I? I’ve lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number.)” Our introduction to the collection, then, insists on this triangular relationship between fiction, nonfiction and fable.
As the collection’s title implies, many of the stories touch on either music or war, and some do both. “The Worst You Ever Feel” is the story of Aaron, a boy listening in on his parents’ dinner party where a Romanian violinist, a man who spent twenty years in jail during Ceausescu’s reign, performs for the guests. Aaron accompanies the older man and as they play, the story moves fluidly in time, as the boy recounts the violinist’s tale during the war. The prose about playing the violin is imbued with subtext: “Once Aaron relaxed into it, the music beside him made his own playing better, and he found himself taking rubatos where he never had before, the accompaniment holding his notes suspended in the air until he felt the moment to move on. He knew his tone was not perfect, his fingering not exact, but this was what people meant when they talked about playing with passion and feeling.” Often, as in this example, we sense the connection between music and writing. In writing about war, Makkai is clearly interested in those that survive war and how that survival impacts their lives. As Aaron considers how the violinist survived the war, he realizes that “escaping is its own special brand of pain and tied to you always are the strings of the souls who didn’t save themselves.” This story most specifically links together these dual themes that are threaded throughout the book.
Some of the stories thoroughly examine the inexorable nature of time. In “The Miracle Years of Little Fork,” an elephant in a traveling circus dies while in town. The ensuing story details the impact of this death on the town, jumping forward in time late in the story to examine everything that occurred after the death: “All this happened a very long time ago. And it’s hard now to argue that what happened so far back wasn’t inevitable.” We then learn of all the events that subsequently were set in motion, and this section concludes: “Or at least it can be said: This world is the one made by the death of that elephant.” Makkai is fascinated by causality and connection, how things are inevitable, how every moment leads to the next.
The collection ends with “The Museum of the Dearly Departed,” a story that focuses on an apartment house that had a gas leak which killed almost all of its inhabitants, save one couple—who also survived the Holocaust. Relatives move into the apartments, and one of the new residents is an artist who is creating a project—a dollhouse structure using found and donated objects from each apartment. Record albums serve as a focal point for each miniature room: Glenn Gould, Maria Callas, Joe Cocker. The artist says, “I want it to be like the music they’re hearing in heaven. Because I’m doing this whole thing with echoes. Right?” Indeed. This final story is the perfect way to end this collection, as each room in the dollhouse structure feels like a space for each of the stories, the themes and concerns cascading and echoing from one to the next.
Publication date: June 23, 2015
Reviewed by Laura Spence-Ash