Thursday, July 30, 2015

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

The short stories in Rebecca Makkai's Music for Wartime are wonderfully varied in style, setting and length. I didn't need to pace myself with one story per day, my usual habit, because each one remained distinct in my mind. The longer ones (around 20 pages) reminded me of Alice Munro's work, in the way it feels like a whole novel is contained within a short story. The shorter ones (2 or 3 pages) are the most stylistically diverse, and act like palate cleansers in between the longer pieces. At the same time, it is the shorter pieces, those which draw on Makkai's Hungarian family history, that tie the collection together into such a satisfying whole.

In an interview in Harper's, Makkai explains: "When I began putting together Music for Wartime, I decided I wanted these family legends sprinkled throughout the fiction. In the collection, they come at you separately, so that as you read you're not just getting my short stories, but also some of my own psychology, the reasons a young American writer would be drawn to write fiction about refugees and war zones."

"The Museum of the Dearly Departed" is a longer story with an elderly Hungarian couple in a supporting role. Laslo and Zsuzsi (a Holocaust survivor) were away in Cleveland when everyone else in their Chicago apartment building died during a gas leak. The story is about Melanie, whose fiance Michael was one of the people who died, nine weeks before their wedding. He was in bed with Vanessa, his ex-wife, in an apartment Melanie learned about when it was left to her in Michael's will.

"Melanie waited for some dramatic feeling to wash over her. But she hadn't registered much emotion that summer, unless numb was an emotion. Grief would be an embarrassing surrender, considering the new facts. Rage was inappropriate, given Michael's death. The two reactions had stalemated each other. She was an abandoned chessboard."

Zsuzsi consoles Melanie by telling her about Rigo Jansci, a Hungarian cake named for an adulterer. (I'm going to make one of these chocolate mousse cakes. Sounds delicious.)
Photo source and recipe at: East European Food
Other stories include one about an American literature professor who accidently kills an albatross in Australia ("Painted Ocean, Painted Ship"); a cello player who must contend with an elaborate memorial to a traffic fatality that has been constructed on her front lawn ("Cross"); and producers of a reality TV show who manipulate participants into a romantic entanglement ("The November Story"). Two of the stories feature gay central characters: "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart" and "Good Saint Anthony Come Around."

In "Couple of Lovers on a Red Background," Johann Bach climbs out of a woman's piano and moves in with her. "He's fond of Mozart, unsurprisingly, but for some reason Tchaikovsky makes him giggle."

I highly recommend this collection.

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