Such a wide-ranging imagination is at work in Rebecca Makkai's story collection Music for Wartime, it's hard to know where to start. With Bach climbing out of a real-estate agent's piano? With the chef who slips from his chains in a line of chained prisoners and spends years impersonating the physics professor forced to take his place? Or how about with the transcript of a hearing on the murder of a pianist that includes all the answers but no questions?
Better starting points for discussion of these 17 unevenly engrossing stories might be the three based on Makkai's own family lore, which aren't fiction at all. First published in Harper's Magazine as nonfiction memoir, "Other Brands of Poison (First Legend)," "Acolyte (Second Legend)" and "A Bird in the House (Third Legend)" are the author's ruminations on stories about her paternal grandparents. As Makkai has revealed in a separate essay, her Hungarian grandfather drafted that country's Second Jewish Law of 1939, and his wife was a well-known leftist novelist who wrote 40 books. (Makkai can't read most of them because they haven't been translated into English.) There are so many contradictions and gaps in the known history of her forebears alone, it's no wonder Makkai became a fiction writer.
The "legends" each contain the kernel of a great story. In one of the family tales Makkai relates, a soldier invades her grandmother's home and fatally mistakes a bottle of ink for alcohol, causing her grandmother to boast ever after that "she once killed a soldier with a bottle of ink." In another story, set during wartime, the grandmother artfully paints girls' faces with stage makeup to look like old hags so they can pretend-hobble around town at night without fear of rape.
The author is careful to discriminate in these "legends" between the handed-down account and her writerly treatment of it. "If the story is hazy, seventy years later, that is because it is [my father's]," she writes. "If the details are strangely specific — the dialogue, the type of soup — that is because they are mine."
To discover nonfiction recollections scattered throughout a collection of short stories is unexpected, and the "legends" aren't the first works in the book to pose questions about the relationship of fact to fiction. The collection's apparently fictional opening story, "The Singing Women," ends with a parenthetical comment direct from the narrator: "I've lied and turned two women into three, because three is a fairy tale number." The reader may wonder: Why would a fiction writer need to admit to lying?
The boundary between fiction and nonfiction is slippery, as every reader knows, and by the final story, it's clear that the author intends to use the latter to illuminate the mechanics of the former. Stories, for Makkai, are an artist's attempts to fill historical lacunae — those missing parts of the record, those psychic holes left by war and other catastrophes, which range in this collection from AIDS to 9/11 to another bombing. In many stories, the art used to fill these gaps is music, but others focus on painting and sculpture. And always in the background, of course, is the art of writing.
Makkai's writing is conversational, understated and often witty. She's a little clunky with irony: In one story, a woman accidentally shoots an albatross and Coleridgean bad luck ensues; in another, two elderly Holocaust survivors return to their apartment building to find most of its residents dead from a gas leak.
The author of two novels, The Borrower (2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014), Makkai has been writing stories all along; the earliest in Music for Wartime dates back to 2002. Four of these stories showed up in the 2008, '09, '10 and '11 editions of The Best American Short Stories, chosen by such illustrious guest editors as Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo and Geraldine Brooks.
In Music, Makkai's writing is at its best when conjuring the arts. Take "Couple of Lovers on a Red Background," that story about Bach stepping into the 21st century from a piano. The female narrator — who notes that "[Bach] never liked pianos. Didn't think they'd last" — uses a deceptively casual, humorous voice to deliver insightful music and art criticism. She describes Bach playing music written after he lived:
When he plays from the Chopin book I got him, it sounds different than it should — sharper, less Romantic, I suppose — but then there's something wonderful about the way he plays fantastical music in this normal, rhythmic way ... It reminds me of a Chagall painting: Here are some people, floating above a town. Here is a cow on the roof. Here is the blanket sky, poked through with blinding stars. But this is just the way my town looks at night! I took my easel into the street to paint my flying neighbors.
"Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart," which has one of the best endings in the collection, is set in Chicago, where Makkai lives most of the year. (She spends summers in Vermont.) The city's landmark restaurant, the Berghoff, is closing, so the time could be 2006. The narrator and the Peter of the title, both gay men in their mid-thirties, have known each other since high school. Peter, once a charismatic and handsome actor, underwent a moment of disillusionment on the stage and can't convincingly act anymore; his agent has left him, and auditions are dead ends. The narrator observes that Peter is also falling apart physically, from AIDS, drug addictions or both; Peter doesn't say. Lamenting his need to keep acting anyway, Peter declares, "We're living in this terrible world of wars and broken hearts and starvation, but some of us are compelled to make art, like that's supposed to help anything."
In that story, the narrator never quite grasps Peter's point, just as he can't quite see that he loved and still loves Peter. But the necessity of art does dawn on the narrator of the final story. The title "The Museum of the Dearly Departed" refers to a memorial a sculptor creates using found objects donated by the families of the casualties of a nighttime gas leak in an apartment building.
The female narrator accuses the sculptor of responding superficially to the tragedy with such a creation: "You look into it from the outside, and you have a few little relics, and you try to put a narrative around them, decipher them, but really you're never going to know."
The sculptor has a powerful rebuttal: What she has described, he says, is exactly what not only artists but "survivors" must do. It is also, in fact, precisely what Makkai is doing with her family stories in the memoir pieces. It's an old story — art as therapy — but in Makkai's hands it is a good one.
They were making a disaster of it, although really the first movement of Bartók's fourth quartet was dissonant enough to hide the rough edges to less trained ears, and Julie was more a businesswoman than a musician. They muddled their way through three awkward movements and arrived at the Allegreto Pizzicato: three minutes of entirely plucked strings, which when done well sounded playful and crisp and strangely elfin, and when done badly sounded like arguing birds. Langley's manic energy and Cho's nauseated languor didn't bode well, and when they all leaned over to put their bows on the floor, Cho stayed down for a full five seconds.
Gregory and Celine started too loudly, but it gave Langley something to follow and it seemed to snap Cho awake. It was like leading students rather than colleagues, but it worked. And then the accented notes that require those insane Bartók pizzicati — where the player plucks the string so hard it slaps back against the fingerboard — somehow electrified the room, so that by the end of the movement they were back together, back in some caffeinated and blessed rehearsal space in Vermont, and Julie was sitting up on the couch.
When she was much younger, Celine would have taken all those fours to mean something: four instruments playing the fourth movement of the fourth quartet. One more four would have been better: four to the fourth power. The four points of the cross, then. Maybe that would count.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Stranger Than Fiction"