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Don't Forget to Breathe While Reading 'Music for Wartime'

Music for Wartime is an exceptional collection that further cements Makkai as one of today’s strongest fiction writers.

Music for Wartime

Publisher: Viking
Length: 240 pages
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-06

In the acknowledgements section of her debut short story sequence, Music for Wartime, Rebecca Makkai clarifies that although it follows her first two novels, 2011’s The Borrower and 2014’s The Hundred-Year House, it’s actually “the product of thirteen years’ labor... [her] entire career -- [her] entire adulthood -- has happened in this collection.” She also thanks many of the publications and people that’ve played a part along the way.

Together, these sentiments allude to the true majesty of Music for Wartime: not only is it a superbly written anthology with exquisite storytelling, wonderful pacing, and outstanding attention to detail, but it also serves as a captivating lesson to aspiring creative writers about the amount of dedication, patience, and insight needed to yield truly great work. Simply put, Music for Wartime is remarkably engaging and eloquent from beginning to end, and it likely contains some of the best short fiction you’ll ever read.

The official press release for the book offers a fine overview of what it entails: “The world of Music for Wartime is at times mystical ... and at others, heartbreakingly recognizable as our own. Makkai’s stories are populated by ... characters that conjure a vast panorama of humanity, united by the experience of loss, and often by the use of art as survival tactic.” Whether outlandish or reserved, historic or modern, lengthy or brief, each of its 17 pieces are dense, compelling, and very rewarding, with characters and conflicts that feel completely three-dimensional and substantial.

Among the most fantastical yet impactful and imaginative inclusions here is “The Worst You Ever Feel”, a Bildungsroman of sorts situated on childhood fears, parental expectations, the power of music, ethereal guidance, and like many of its counterparts, the ways in which the past inevitably colors the present and/or future. Essentially, the narrative takes place at a recital and focuses on a boy named Aaron as he watched an aged man named Radelescu play violin. As it progresses, Aaron learns (via several spirits) how the harrowing life of the musician intersects with his own lineage and destiny, culminating in a masterfully earnest and powerful resolution. As with most of the tales in Music for Wartime, it’s beautiful, tragic, and unforgettable.

“The Worst You Ever Feel” also exemplifies two of Makkai’s strongest attributes: her ability to balance secondary plotlines into a satisfying, all-encompassing conclusion, and her skill at crafting comprehensive and alluring openings that suggest a plethora of minute yet important specificities:

When the nine-fingered violinist finally began playing, Aaron hid high up on the wooden staircase, as far above the party as the ghosts. He was a spider reigning over the web of oriental rug, that burst of red and black and gold, and from his spider limbs stretched invisible fibers, winding light and sticky around the forty guests, around his parents, around Radelescu the violinist. There were thinner strands, too, between people who had a history together of love or hate, and all three ghosts were tied to Radelescu, to his arcing bow. But Aaron held the thickest strings, and when he thought, breathe, all the people breathed.

Equally surreal and ethical is “The Miracle Years of Little Fork”, a fable about how the death of a circus elephant affects a small town and makes its protagonist, Reverend Hewlett, question his perspectives on life. Its exploration of quaint folk and religious ponderings, coupled with the symbolism of changing weather patterns, evokes the philosophical slice-of-life brilliance of a Coen brothers film or a Flannery O’Connor parable (albeit less malicious). Of particular note is how Hewlett constantly questions if he made the right choice in leaving his lover behind to follow his faith:

Stanley had reminded him of Annette, on the day he left Chicago, fixing him with dry eyes: “I don’t see how you’re so sure,” she said. And he’d said, “There’s no other way to be.” And whether or not he was truly sure back then, he’d grown sure these past three years. Or at least he’d been too busy counseling others to foster his own concerns. He’d broken down in doubt a few times -- not in God so much as in his plan -- when he’d had to bury a child or when soldiers came home in boxes, but he’d always returned to a place of faith.

On the more restrained and relatable end of the spectrum is “The Museum of the Dearly Departed”, which centers on Melanie Honing, a middle-aged woman who learns that her older fiancé, Michael, died as a result of a gas leak in his ex-wife, Victoria’s, apartment building. You see, Michael told Melanie that his ex-wife was dead, yet he was sleeping in her bed when the disaster occurred, so Melanie is struggling with a lot of conflicting thoughts and emotions as she digs through the remnants of Victoria’s room (and her own life).

The splendor of the story comes from how realistically and meticulously Makkai depicts how Honing is dealing with it all, as well as how ancillary characters like Jed (a younger man who’s constructing a diorama out of the personal possessions of the deceased) and Zsuzsi (an elderly Hungarian woman whose own marital origin is shocking) influence how Melanie sees the situation. Be it how Melanie compares what she is doing with what she shouldbe doing on her wedding day, or how she constantly tries to rationalize her cognitive dissonance (“This was truly for the best, she told herself. More anger meant less mourning, at least of the traditional variety”), “The Museum of the Dearly Departed” is a bittersweet gem with universal resonance.

Fortunately, the remaining stories are more or less as strong as the aforementioned three, which makes Music for Wartime nearly impeccable. Even at its most far-fetched moments, there’s still a heavy weight of truth about the human condition buried within; similarly, while some of its plots aren’t especially exciting, their characters are so distinguishing (and the pieces are so well written) that the stories are enthralling nonetheless. In fact, some of these entries are more absorbing than many full length works. Overall, Music for Wartime is an exceptional collection that any fan of the style should adore and learn from, and it further cements Makkai as one of today’s strongest fiction writers.


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