CBR #89 – Sad Birthday Parties and Smoking Wrecks

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

After two novels, Makkai decided to release her collection of short stories, which kind of works as Polaroids of an Author As A Young Woman.  You write what you know, and so Makkai has delved into her Eastern European roots and dug out this collection of wistful yet beautiful short stories.  Timeline-wise, they’re jarring, in that they take place over the burgeoning years of her career as a writer.  You don’t see the stumbling photos of a baby trying to walk, you see the event parsed out as Makkai finds her voice.  And her voice is full of survivors guilt and smarmy wit.

There might be great novels about Eastern Europe, but for me, it’s pretty much Dracula, ghoulash, and the new mobs.  I mean, when we think of atrocities and WWII, we think of Germany or Poland.  But not much gets said about the region, who in our lifetime has shuffled names and borders and allegiances.  My most famous film review was about A Serbian Film, and even in that, people told me it was a metaphor for the politics of the state, and all I could see was the horrors before me.

Makkai writes about war, almost like fairy tales told by grandparents who want their children to know not everything ends happily ever after, because, as she poignantly states in one of the stories — “May this be the worst you ever feel.”

Makkai has had four stories selected for the Best American Fiction series, and it’s no surprise when you read them.  They aren’t feel good stories, but they aren’t told to wag a finger or pass judgment.  They’re just facts of life.  This shit happened, to Makkai herself, or to people in her families or to people her family members knew.  But they bear the benefit of being fictionalized, parsed and pulped and shaped so that they get the maximum impact in a way that seems almost effortless.  The collection is filled with emotional papercuts, where you turn the page, reach the end, and realize you’re bleeding and wounded.

It’s difficult to pick out a piece.  Unlike most short story collections or studio albums, there’s no stand out single while the rest feels like filler.  These are of a whole, of Makkai’s formation as a writer, and they feel uniform and delightful.  If I had to pick a favorite, it’s probably “Cross.”  A violinist comes home to find a memorial cross buried in front of the tree in her front yard.  A young girl died in a motorcycle wreck and two women are placing increasingly gaudy plastic memorials in the yard.  It’s such a horrible thought — a moral dilemma wracked with Makkai’s signature thoughtful guilt-ridden characters — and yet shaped around it is an even more intriguing story.

I always look forward to a new book by Rebecca Makkai, so this collections is a nice reminder as to what she has to offer to us.

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