Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, I have a few questions for youShe begins with a somber joke. The narrator narrates conversations with strangers about the podcast she does, a Serial-similar exploration of the murder of a girl in an elite boarding school in the ’90s. “Wasn’t that where the guy kept them in the basement?” they sometimes ask. ‘Wasn’t that where she was stabbed – no. The one where she got in a cab with – another girl. The one where she went to the frat party…” The punchline isn’t just that violence against women has become so pervasive that the victims blur in our minds; It’s that the stories we tell about them have become totally formulaic — and we still devour them. The narrator goes on to promise us a particularly well-worn true crime story that is aware of both its appeal and its shortcomings: “It was the story where she was young enough and white enough and pretty enough and rich enough that people paid attention. ” In just a few pages, Makkai sets out the tricky meta-endeavour of her fourth novel: working in a genre she views with skepticism.
Doubts about the genre also plague her narrator. Bodie Kane, a 40-year-old film professor and acclaimed podcaster, returns in 2018 to Granby, the posh New Hampshire boarding school she attended in the ’90s, to teach two short courses — and “to go head-to-head with the girl who.” Wore her way through Granby.” As an overweight teenager from a small town in Indiana, she’d dressed all in black and clung to the shadows as the stage manager for the theater program. A few decades later, she finds that today’s students brought great relief to their teenage selves and the mores of the time.
The eager Gen Zers at Bodie’s podcasting seminar appear to have pole-vaulted through the awkward teenage years. They all share their pronouns, one girl speaks openly about clinical depression, and two debate which stories to tell. After the first class, a girl named Britt comes to Bodie to discuss the project she’d like to pursue: the grisly 1995 murder of a Granby senior named Thalia Keith. Britt is serious and recites the “problematic” aspects of the True crime genres regarding this case – she worries that by focusing on the murder of a white girl she would “ignore the violence inflicted on black and brown bodies”. But she has a social justice stance: She is convinced that Omar Evans, the school’s young black athletic coach who was jailed for the crime, was the victim of racist policing.
Bodie is amazed at how much more enlightened Britt is now than she was at that age: At the time, she thought Omar’s circumstantial conviction was merely “odd.” However, she is also aware that hoping not to just be “another white girl giggling about murder,” Britt Is just another girl captivated by a familiar true crime storyline. Not that Bodie would discourage her student — she’s immensely curious herself, having been Thalia’s roommate and spent countless hours exploring Reddit boards dedicated to the case over the years.
I have a few questions for you seems at first glance like a retreat for Makkai, his predecessor novel The Great Believers, was a brilliant and ambitious chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. Following a group of gay men in Chicago in the 1980s and deftly weaving storylines from different eras, Makkai captured the devastating long-term effects of the Scourge in a city that received far less attention than Los Angeles or New York. But look again, and I have a few questions for youHe also addresses major social upheavals that raise questions of memory and blame. But this time, Makkai turns a wary eye on our obsession with true crimes and #MeToo revelations, instilling less confidence that we have useful tools to unearth and tell the stories that haunt us. The novel’s dizzying tour of tweets, headlines, and podcast soundbites lets us go, though it keeps us hooked — and that’s the point.
As Bodie tries to recall the events surrounding Thalia’s murder, other parts of her past surface and the book takes a #MeToo turn. Like so many women in early 2018, Bodie is reviving memories of a long time ago, now “contemplating their ugly behinds, the dirty facets that were long hidden.” She’s furious at the sexist treatment she and other girls should be laughing at — being groped, being made into the punch line of crude jokes. The all-too-familiar approach of a beloved music teacher, she reluctantly realizes, was nurturing, and the boy’s game Thalia Bingo was molestation. (It was “a sheet on which they could initialize squares that said things like touches outer clothingor under clothes about waste … or interrogatedor fucked.”) Her newly adjusted eyesight reminds her of the first time she put on glasses “and stared at the trees in wonder and inexplicably feeling betrayed. Those clearly defined leaves had been there all along and nobody ever told me.”
But soon Bodie begins to doubt her new perspective. Aware that her memories do not offer the full picture, she resorts to a kind of kaleidoscopic fantasy; In flimsy chapters scattered throughout the novel, she imagines how various people – her peers, a teacher, even herself – would have killed Thalia and why. She hopes Britt’s podcast will fill in some of the gaps, although she’s aware (at times) of how raunchy stories as substitutes for the truth can become: “I wanted Britt to take me there. I wanted second sight. I wanted the ability to remember things I wasn’t there for.”
Here Makkai begins to play with an urgent question for a society permeated by narratives about true crime and #MeToo: Should we judge the past by today’s standards? Instead of an answer, she draws attention to the inadequacy of the narratives we rely on. Desperate to know who killed Thalia, Bodie falls for a formula she warned her podcasting students against: coming up with new theories too soon instead of investigating questions. Seen through the veil of Thalia’s murder, all of Bodie’s past male misconduct takes on a more sinister form, and she stubbornly clings to the notion that a predatory male is the culprit. Even when she turns out to be wrong, she can’t stop watching the guilt spread.
When she is confronted with a drama in her immediate vicinity, her vision changes. After her husband Jerome is attacked online over a dark situation involving a long-lost friend, Bodie suddenly becomes much more interested in distinguishing between different kinds of hurts in women. (At the time, Jasmine was a 21-year-old gallery assistant and Jerome a painter in her mid-30s; she’s since become a performance artist, claiming in a piece that he wielded his power in awkward ways. ) Now, Bodie applies rigid boundaries to a #MeToo claim. Drunk in the bath, she takes to Twitter to slam the online mobs for equating shitty behavior with “ACTUAL sexual assault” for implying a grown woman’s lack of sexual agency. Offline, she admits to being more ambiguous — and not just about Jerome: “I had run out of a sense of what was true…I couldn’t figure out who knew more about what happened to Thalia: me now or me at just under eighteen.”
Makkai is not here to judge, but to complicate. She juxtaposes examples and leaves us to make connections and comparisons like detectives drawing a red string on an evidence board. Bodie sees a line between the Twitter mobs and the true crime obsessives – both “fitting into one another’s story”, their voyeurism imbued with an eagerness to assign blame and deliver some sort of justice. Crucially, these true crime fans and #MeToo viewers aren’t just passive consumers. They have the power to change lives, sometimes in extreme ways: Jerome is tweeted out of work; A later, more polished repeat of Britt’s podcast prompts a reassessment of Omar’s conviction, and Bodie’s detective work influences what happens in court.
As we race through the novel, we’re drawn into the same role as Bodie: trying to piece together the various stories and eagerly awaiting judgment. In the end, we’re all but certain who did it, but Makkai refuses the satisfaction of a confession or clean justice. Instead, she leaves us to fill in the blanks, conjuring up the lurid details from scraps and rumors – caught in a quest, her agile book reminds us that we should always have doubts.
From Rebekah Makkai
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