Contemporary Novels



Bodie Kane, the first-person narrator of Rebecca Makkai’s brilliant and addictive new novel, I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU, is a producer of true-crime podcasts. One of the running motifs (I’m reluctant to call it a joke) in the book is how easy it is to be confused by the sheer number of acts of violence against women and girls that have come to light in these amateur investigations, from sexual assault to rape to murder, always perpetrated by men, who all too often get away with it.

From the first page:

“Wasn’t that the one where the guy kept her in the basement?

“No! No. It was not.

“Wasn’t it the one where she was stabbed in—no. The one where she got in cab with—different girl. The one where she went to the frat party, the one where he used a stick, the one where he used a hammer, the one where she picked him up from rehab and he…”

Bodie is also a film professor, so it’s no surprise when Granby, the boarding school where she attended grades 9-12, invites her to teach a  “mini-mester” class in January of 2018, some twenty years after her graduation. Bodie volunteers to teach a class on podcasting as well, and one of the topics she suggests to her students is the murder of her classmate, Thalia, who was killed a few weeks before graduation.

For twenty years, Bodie had managed not to think too much about Thalia. They’d been roommates junior year, but were never close. Thalia was beautiful and popular and Bodie was an outsider. The one thing they had in common was Drama Club, where Bodie ran lights for Camelot and Thalia played Guinevere. An athletic trainer named Omar had been quickly identified as Thalia’s killer and was still in prison for it.

Then, in 2016, a video starts to make the rounds of the internet. There’s a shot of the Camelot curtain call, with time stamp, and an elaborate argument claiming that Omar could not have killed Thalia. Bodie, though disturbed by the idea that Omar might be innocent,  manages to avoid worrying about it until one of her podcasting students decides to use Thalia’s murder for her class assignment. Bodie’s secrets, and those of many others, start getting dragged into the light.

QUESTIONS, on the most basic level, is a whodunnit, but that’s just the starting point. It’s a classic coming-of-age campus novel that ranks with Donna Tartt’s SECRET HISTORY. It is up to the minute in its concern with male sexual predators, even as it shows how cancel culture can turn into vigilante injustice. It deals with the racism at the heart of the criminal justice system, and how ordinary, well-meaning citizens can become part of the problem.

But all of that makes QUESTIONS sound like a particularly well contrived genre novel rather than the serious work of literature that it is. Makkai’s previous novel, THE GREAT BELIEVERS, had the same kind of scope and ambition, dealing with the AIDS epidemic of the 80s at the same time that it talked about art and integrity and ambition. Both novels feature instantly memorable characters and clean, beautiful, hardworking prose.

Consider p. 354: “I said, ‘Look who drank the Flavor Aid.’” This is so perfectly Bodie—she knows that the followers at Jonestown drank Flavor Aid, not Kool-Aid, and she uses the correct name not to show off, but because she cares about getting things right. She tells us early on that she is a detail-oriented person, and Makkai, time after time, proves it without ever calling attention to it.

Makkai is not above a few literary games: Thalia’s name suggests Thanatos; Kane alludes to Bodie’s questioning whether she is her sister’s (roommate’s) keeper. The predatory music teacher who may also be a killer shares a last name with Robert Bloch, author of PSYCHO. I never found it distracting—as in Dickens, there are a lot of characters and I was glad for the appropriate names. And though there are a lot of characters in QUESTIONS, I felt Makkai trying, if not to love them all, to at least walk a mile or two in their shoes. This is most obvious in the chapters where Bodie tries to picture each of the suspects as they might have committed the murder.

One of the telltale indicators of literature vs. genre may be that very compassion that the author feels for her characters. In classic pulp, the villain is so purely evil that the hero doesn’t have to bother with compunctions about killing him, or worry about nightmares afterward. The situation in QUESTIONS is far more complicated, and gets more so as the story goes on. It’s a master class in the way character can drive plot even as plot reveals character.

Don’t miss I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU. The questions it asks are ones we should be shouting from the rooftops.

Classic Novels

THE CHOSEN by Chaim Potok

I haven’t met a lot of out-and-out unrepentant villains in my life. Some people I know started out with good intentions and got bitter. Some grew up hungry and never got over it. Yet popular fiction (including films) tends to favor the elemental, black-and-white, good-versus-evil conflict, winding the audience up until they’re ready to kill the bad guys with their own hands and teeth, building to a loud and bloody climax.

Nothing could be farther from the plot of THE CHOSEN. Potok gives us two fathers and two sons, each of whom is trying with all his heart to be the best person he can be, not just for himself or his family, but for the world. And all of them inflict terrible pain on each other.

Reuven, the narrator, is the son of a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi in Brooklyn, where he attends high school in the early days of World War II. In the course of a baseball game (fast pitch softball, to be precise), Reuven’s life intersects that of Danny Saunders, the son of a revered Hasidic rabbi. Both boys are gifted Talmudic scholars, Reuven by choice, Danny because his father’s position is hereditary, and he has no alternative.

Reb Saunders, Danny’s father, is physically intimidating, emotionally distant, brilliant, and demanding. His belief in his own correctness is as unswerving as his faith in ”the Master of the Universe.” Danny, equally stubborn, is drawn to psychology, a subject considered irrelevant at best to the Hasidim. He is reduced to keeping his studies secret from his father, and he’s helped by an unexpected ally.

In the course of the novel, we see through these characters’ eyes as the Holocaust is revealed, as the Zionist movement takes off, as the State of Israel is established. Danny and Reuven end up on opposite sides of the struggle between supporters of a religious versus secular state, a struggle that turns heated and finally violent. Because we are so invested in the characters, the political becomes personal for the reader as well, not least when the last revelations come out in the final pages.

Potok writes cleanly, vividly, and informatively, though at times he overuses oral formula, as when repeatedly describing the Hasidic traditional dress: “the dark suit, the dark skullcap, the white shirt open at the collar, and the fringes showing below the jacket.” The effect may be less than Homeric, but it does add a certain epic weight to the narrative.

Speaking of those final pages—bring Kleenex. Bring lots of Kleenex.

Contemporary Novels

BE SAFE I LOVE YOU by Cara Hoffman

If you had asked me on page 75 what this novel was about, I would have said, “I don’t know. This solider, Lauren, comes home from Iraq. She’s really close to her younger brother. Her father is this old hippie who can barely take care of himself. She has vague plans to meet up with a guy named Daryl that she knew in the service.” But that isn’t a story, that’s background. There are a few omens. She is perhaps a little too sure that she is squared away and in control. When violence erupts on page 77, it is precise and shocking and forced me to rethink everything I knew about Lauren Clay and where this novel was going.

And that’s about all I’m going to say about plot and story. If I even tried to pigeonhole BE SAFE into a genre, I would be spoiling the ride. This is one of those cases where I have to say, “Trust me. You need to read this book.”

The friend who recommended BE SAFE to me compared it to the work of Megan Abbott, and that’s certainly a place to start. Both are great with family drama, both are unflinching in talking about teenagers, both are skilled at making you care for the imaginary beings that inhabit their novels. Hoffman in addition is a world class stylist, clean, clear, evoking scenes in pointillist detail, like this description of the airport where Lauren has just landed in the US after nine months in the desert:

Christmas music played from speakers mounted near the cameras beside the baggage claim. Beyond the sliding-glass doors rain baptized those who ran from the curb to meet their friends and relatives in the roped-off lobby beneath a faded blue and white sign reading simply: ARRIVALS. They came in dripping, disheveled, their faces shining or makeup running as they embraced and balanced packages and bags.

Lauren, ever vigilant, would of course notice the cameras right away. She would also see the cold rain as a blessing after all that heat and sand. Yet the roped-off lobby also separates Lauren from the other travelers, driving home the fact that nobody (by her choice) is there to meet her. The plain language goes down like cool water, not drawing attention to the heavy lifting it’s doing in the background, every choice of detail telling us a little more about who Lauren is.

And that question–who is she, really?–is what the book is about. It’s the question that her fate, and her brother’s, rests on. It’s to Hoffman’s immense credit that, right up to the final paragraphs, I didn’t know what the answer was going to be, and that I was stunned by how satisfying and believable that answer was.

I should stop here, but I feel compelled to point out that there is a lot of weeping in this novel. One person or another had tears streaming down his or her face for the latter part of it. (Oddly, this is the second book I’ve read this month with that problem.) The danger, of course, is that the characters do the crying for the reader, and pre-empt the reader’s own tears.

I cried anyway. This is an amazing, important book.