“There’s No Easy Answer, But I’m Gonna Tell a Story About It.” Rebecca Makkai on Exploring the Gray Areas
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
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On crafting several mysteries:
MK: There are a bunch of short chapters in which Bodie can theorize about different suspects and what they might have done and what the murder might have looked like. We’re very used to seeing that in detective novels where partners are going back and forth, but it’s so much neater to see it in one person’s brain.
RM: I wanted to just take us into various scenarios rather than trying to have it come out in dialogue or anything like that. This did not work at all, but I originally had all of those sections grouped together in the middle of the novel. So you got halfway through and then it was like, here’s seven different scenarios.
And then we get the second half of the novel. It didn’t work. My editor was like, maybe think about doing something different with these, and it made so much more sense to spread them out, partly because it’s in the order that she’s really thinking through these things as different possibilities are occurring to her.
But yeah: this is not a terrible spoiler. By the end of the book, you do pretty much know who did this and what happened, but I’m not going to have this moment where this person says yes, and here’s how I did it. It’s an intentionally unsatisfying ending in some ways too, right?
But having had those chapters along the way with various scenarios playing out, my hope is that then when you do figure out what happened, you’re able to go back to those other scenarios and be like, okay, I have a good sense of what probably went down. And of course we’re not just doing this with the murder.
MK: We’re watching Bodie do this with her time in high school overall, kind of solving these mysteries. I find it so poignant that we all seem to be unreliable narrators, especially when we’re trying to piece together our adolescence or our teenage years.
RM: Yeah. It was really important to me that this was a book where we’re trapped in the present. She thinks back on things that happened in high school, but we never go back there. The narrative never zooms us back there. And also, she’s very honest with herself and with the audience of the book about the things she doesn’t remember and the confusion she has.
The suspension of disbelief that we often need going into a novel is that when someone has a memory, it’s going to be a full chronological three-page memory with all the details. Like, I tasted the salad and then I put my hand down—50 years earlier. Right? Which is not how memory works.
It’s how memory works in film. And I think what’s happened in recent literary fiction is that people are borrowing from a filmic portrayal of memory rather than either A) a realistic human portrayal of memory, or B) what someone like Virginia Wolff worked so hard to get across with examining human consciousness. We’re not tapping into literary tradition. We’re not tapping into actual human psychology.
We’re just writing down a movie, and someone needs to be shaken out of their memories, with someone calling their name. You need that in film to transition out of the sepia-toned memory and back into the present scene. But you don’t need that in fiction. So I really wanted to trap us and trap Bodie in the present, where these memories are really subjective and they’re really unreliable.
On exploring the gray areas:
RM: I think that’s what so many of us were going through with MeToo: we already knew what the big traumas were, people having been assaulted. It’s like, yeah, of course, but that was already something that for most people, you’re aware this big, huge thing happened. But with MeToo, the excavation of these tiny moments was fascinating, and the things that I had not thought about in years and years and years that had maybe upset me at the time, but the narrative at the time was like, it’s funny, why aren’t you laughing? If you don’t find this funny you’re a prude or you’re too uptight.
And realizing, no, that was actually huge, like I had every right to be upset. That was ridiculous. And other people were upset by things like that too. It’s just that everyone was keeping quiet because no one wants to be the person going like, put your dick back in your pants, you know?
MK: And you get into that a little bit more with Jerome, who is Bodie’s separated husband. His case kind of reminded me of Aziz Ansari, trying to figure out the difference between bad behavior and [abuse].
RM: Yeah. I think the Azis Ansari situation was where for a lot of us, things kind of jumped the shark. We’re like, okay, this is worth talking about for sure. I wasn’t there. I don’t know. But it seemed like a very different scenario than say Matt Lauer or Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby. I wanted something messy. I don’t wanna go in there being like, yes, and now we’re gonna MeToo all these guys, and it’s all for the best. Because they’re not always very clear cut cases.
She’s looking at this case and it’s not like the book comes down one way or another, but the character’s point of view is he had a relationship that was a consensual adult relationship that didn’t work out. And he didn’t always treat her very well, but he didn’t hit her. And now his career is going to be over because this woman has made a performance art piece about him…
But this is some of the stuff in the art world, in the literature world, in the film world, some things that are coming out are like, there was a huge age gap and these people dated consensually. Is that now suddenly a problem? Someone can say, yeah, I was so young and naive, but if you were like, 25, 28, you were a consenting adult. Are we gonna say now that women in their twenties are not consenting adults?
MK: And on the other hand there is a power indifference and the performance artist clearly has a valid complaint against Jerome. But I wish more people would grapple with that kind of gray area…
RM: This is the thing, right? This is not me saying we’ve gone too far. This is me trying to get into the grayest of gray areas. The book doesn’t need to decide, the book doesn’t need to be the jury on this. And for Bodie, she feels very protective of her husband and very indignant that this woman would accuse him of these things. But at the same time, she has this rage towards this young man who harassed her in school, and his wife would probably feel like, but he was just a kid.
It’s all a big mess. The thing is, Twitter is not the place for the gray area. No one is going to come out on Twitter and be like, well, I don’t know, it’s complicated. What gets amplified are the extreme positions. But what art, what literature can do is take the space and the time to go into those gray areas and be like, this is messy and paradoxical and there’s no easy answer, but I’m gonna tell a story about it.
Rebecca Makkai’s last novel, The Great Believers, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Her other books are the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the collection Music for Wartime. A 2022 Guggenheim Fellow, Rebecca is on the MFA faculties of the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe and Northwestern University, and is Artistic Director of StoryStudio Chicago. Her latest book is called I Have Some Questions for You.