Music for Wartime: Stories (23 June 2015) by Rebecca Makkai
I read Rebecca Makkai's second novel, The Hundred Year House, last year and was really impressed. This collection of short stories has only confirmed my faith in her talent: although it's slightly patchy, some of them are spectacular.
I'll start with 'The November Story', because I thought it was absolutely perfect. It's about a woman who's working on the production team of a reality TV show, something a bit like Big Brother except all the contestants are artists. (It's called Starving Artist.) She's instructed to fabricate a relationship between two of the participants, with the aim of manipulating them into actually, really, falling in love; at the same time she's floundering in her own relationship with her girlfriend, a maddeningly lazy and indecisive presence who's 'making a list of the pros and cons of our relationship', and with whom she can no longer find anything to talk about except her work. Almost every sentence of this story is brilliant, and everything in it works wonderfully. Christine's work on the show, her relationships with her colleagues, the little snippets of her career history; the tiny vignettes of her home life with Beth, their stilted conversations, talking at cross purposes, deciding to ignore each other or feeling like they are. I've read it a couple of times since I finished the book and have a feeling I will keep returning to it forever. 'The November Story' is everything a short story should be.
In 'Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart', the titular character is a handsome, brilliant actor who one day 'freezes' on stage and instantaneously loses all his acting ability, confidence and belief in himself. The narrator is a friend who sees Peter as his first love: 'I never actually loved him, but still, listen, believe me, there's another kind of first love.' He invites Peter to read at an event he's holding, to celebrate a project in which writers have created short works to complement paintings and sculptures in a local museum. It's hardly difficult to predict that this won't end well, given the title of the story, but there are still so many surprises in it, so many unexpected details. This is perhaps the greatest strength of Makkai's stories and the thing that binds them together, since the plots and styles of each are so different from one another. 'Cross' - a cellist finds her driveway marred by a plastic cross, which grows to become a plastic shrine, commemorating the death of a teenage girl in a road accident; she battles to get it removed, while trying to balance her disgust about it with the grief of the girl's family; meanwhile she starts a new relationship with an old friend, and forms a quartet with him and two young musicians - also benefits from this perfect use of detail. Another couple of favourites were 'Good Saint Anthony Come Around' (too much going on to describe quickly, but it's basically about the relationship between two artists) and 'The Museum of the Dearly Departed' (a woman finds out her fiancé was having an affair with his ex-wife, a person she'd never known about, when the two of them are killed in a gas leak at the latter's apartment building).
As the above shows, it's incredibly difficult to summarise any of the stories in Music for Wartime in a single sentence, since there's always more than one thing going on. They cross into so many genres that the collection is constantly surprising and fresh. 'The Miracle Years of Little Fork' is full of scenes straight out of a quirky historical novel: a travelling circus becomes stuck in a Arkansas town after one of their elephants dies there; the town is then besieged by drought, flood and wind in turn, while a young reverend tries to hold his 'flock' together. 'The Briefcase' is one of those Kafkaesque political allegories, with a nameless political prisoner escaping and assuming the identity of a professor whose briefcase and clothes he steals. 'Couple of Lovers on a Red Background' - perhaps the most-talked-about story from this collection, at least from what I've seen so far, no doubt because its premise is so ridiculous in isolation - is a comic fantasy about a woman who finds Johann Sebastian Bach living in her piano, and goes on to start a sexual relationship with him because she wants to be pregnant with the child of a genius.
The weakest link for me was Makkai's use of what seem to be personal anecdotes to bridge the gaps between the stories proper. 'Other Brands of Poison', 'Acolyte', and 'A Bird in the House' all fit into this category. They are presented as true stories that have gained the status of legends within Makkai's family (indeed, each is subtitled as a Legend), and read like notes from the author - a device that interrupts the flow of the longer stories and rather disturbs the magic. I'm sure they'd be great as part of an autobiographical collection, but here they just feel like they don't belong.
Some of the shortest stories here are comparatively weak, too. 'Everything We Know About the Bomber', for example, feels like the product of an assignment you might be set in a creative writing class, and comes off as amateurish when compared to the superior pieces. (Actually it just really kept making me think about that notorious Amanda Palmer poem.) And 'Suspension: April 20, 1984' I found uncharacteristically hard to follow. But maybe these are more personal quibbles than actual problems: I've said before that I always struggle with really short stories, and most of what gets called flash fiction; I find it hard to get anything out of them, and maybe one day I will mature enough as a reader to start appreciating them, but this wasn't the book to change my mind.
If the 7 micro-stories had been trimmed from this collection, and it was just made up of the 10 longer stories, the fully formed and rounded ones, I'd have given it 10/10. Honestly, I'm tempted to give it full marks simply because of how much I adored 'The November Story'. I gained so much inspiration from it; it would have been worth reading the whole book just for that. Needless to say, I'll be eagerly awaiting/scouring the internet for more of Makkai's short fiction in future.
I received an advance review copy of Music for Wartime from the publisher through NetGalley.
Rating: 9/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Pre-order on Amazon: Hardback