Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Some writers write with a seemingly effortless simplicity that make me want to pick up a pen.  Whenever I read anything by a writer like this, I think, “Maybe I could write….”  Virginia Woolf is one of these writers for me.  Obviously, I am not saying I can write as well as her.  Far from it.  I only mean that something about her writing feels like it would be easy to do.  It’s elegant and accessible and seamless and I just imagine it pouring fully formed from her mind onto the page.

Then there are writers like Rebecca Makkai.  Nothing about her writing seems easy.  It seems technically, emotionally and maybe even physically difficult to create, and the result is exquisite.  Her collection of short stories Music For Wartime is a magical realism style memoir told in several acts interspersed with stories featuring other characters that I suspect still have autobiographical elements.

Many of the stories in Music For Wartime center around the question of how much our parent’s and grandparent’s history defines our own story and self.  The author comes by her interest in this topic honestly, as they say.  Her paternal grandfather was a Hungarian nationalist politician who was one of the primary authors of infamous antisemitic legislation severely restricting the rights of Hungarian Jews.  Her grandmother (her grandfather’s first cousin) was a prolific novelist who did not share her grandfather’s ideologies and perhaps because of this their marriage was a short one.  She explores her grandparents’ relationship to one another directly in the stories Other Kinds of Poison, The Acolyte, and A Bird in the House.  She also explores an alternate version, one with an ending that is harder to understand, but very worth considering in The Museum of the Dearly Departed.

There are 17 stories in this collection and I can’t pick a favorite, but I may be able to pick three.

The Miracle Years of Little Fork features a circus, a drought, a hidden pregnancy and the surety that life does in fact go on.  Some short stories leave me hungry for more, but The Miracle Years manages to satiate.  Themes as complex as faith and family are explored with succinct depth and this story about grief and loss and redemption still manages to feel whimsical.

The November Story is about a reality television producer who is just doing her job when she manipulates two contestants on her show to fall in love even as her own relationship is falling apart. I personally credit the 2007 television writers’ strike as the tipping point in the decline of western civilization.  By ushering in an era of “unscripted” reality television, the writers unwittingly undermined not only their own usefulness to the industry, but perhaps the collective IQ of our society.  That is to say, reality TV is both repulsive and interesting to me and I was immediately drawn in by the premise of this story.  It is one of the few in this collection that does not include elements of magical realism or other-worldliness.  Perhaps because of this, these characters are some of the most realistic and easiest to relate to.

Good Saint Anthony Come Around is a punch in the face, almost literally.  Chapman is a performance artist whose art features photographs of famous people he has punched in the face.  He punches and begins a romantic relationship with another artist, Francisco Ling, who is dying of AIDS.  Ling’s friends are protective of him and doubt Chapman’s motives in becoming involved with Ling. So there are mixed reactions and many suspicions following Ling’s disappearance.  For those of us that lost people we loved to AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s it is still important to find stories about people infected with the virus that are well told and humanizing.  These days the virus is no longer a death sentence and it is possible for people with HIV to live and live well for many years.  This story spans the years and reminds us that this is amazing and that we once did not believe it to be possible.

I don’t often read short stories.  I worry that they just won’t satisfy and usually they don’t, but Music for Wartime was simply amazing.  I started raving about it just a few pages in and I still haven’t stopped.  I immediately made my husband read the story I thought he would like best, Peter Torelli, Falling Apart.  I have since recommended this collection to my dad, my coworkers, and now anyone that reads this post.  It has peaked my interest in reading other short stories too.  Recommendations, please!

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