by Liza Boldrick
Hunting For Clues With Ghosts
Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Hundred-Year House invites more than one reading. It may be finished in one long day on the beach, but this is no beach read; given the complex storyline, it requires commitment and patience from the reader. Its unconventional, inverted timeline means that Makkai provides the answers before her audience knows to ask the questions. In this treasure hunt of a book, a Marxist scholar, an unemployed broker, various artists, caretakers, and aristocrats shift their identities and perspectives, at the same time raising awareness of class issues, the subjectivity of what constitutes art, and domestic abuse.
The novel is presented in three sections, starting with the year 1999 and regressing first to 1955, then 1929, and terminating at the turn of the 20th century. The points of entry into the story narrow as well: beginning with the perspectives of multiple characters, by the end the reader has only a glimpse into the single narrator’s thoughts. Only the setting–an old-fashioned mansion on the edges of Chicago–stays somewhat constant while Makkai manipulates every other factor in an accelerated series of plot twists. Characters will unexpectedly disappear, die, betray one another, and change their faces before the reader’s very eyes, often simultaneously. It is a token to Makkai’s skill that so many key events can happen concurrently without muddying the understandability of the plot.
The house begins and ends as the home of the Devohrs, an old-money family of Canadian aristocrats who “sat firmly in the second tier of great families of the last century,” with a brief phase as an artists’ colony. The ever-changing residents reveal their secrets in reverse; the fates that await the characters are introduced before the characters are, a risky, but well-executed, structural choice that makes reading the novel something like being handed the treasure and told to find the clues.
Despite its heavy reliance on concept, The Hundred-Year House has credible characters. Many are chameleons and some are simply con artists, but each insists on occupying multiple identities throughout the course of the story. The Marxist academic Zee, for instance, at the center of the first section, lives in her wealthy family’s carriage house in her mother’s estate. Meanwhile her husband Doug, supposedly trying to make an academic name for himself by writing about the obscure poetry of Edward Parfitt, a one-time occupant of the artists’ colony, secretly earns his salary from writing formulaic young adult novels. Doug’s predicament–“his stopover in the land of preteen fiction was only the latest in a wretched chain of events”–sums up the communal situation of every character who walks through the house. They have all found themselves in unlucky circumstances, by fault or by fate, and they’re trying desperately to claw their way out by “crawling out of [their] own skin.”
Those characters who remain exactly how they’re introduced are in fact the outliers against a host of people trying to be someone else. As the novel moves further back in time, the masks become more complicated, the lies less easily identifiable and their consequences more absurd. By the end of the first section, it is clear that no one is who they say they are, and everyone has ulterior motives.
However, the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief with the eccentric, often irrational characters sometimes wears thin. Some of the characters’ decisions–for instance, changing one’s name multiple times over the course of a lifetime for the “fresh start”–lead the plot not to the impossible, but at least to the improbable. Part of the absurdity may be attributed to the fact that (in keeping with their generation) the characters in the first section are more like overgrown adolescents than adults. But the rest seems to exist solely so that Makkai can tie the dozens of threads throughout the story into a nice bow at the end. However, the reader can forgive her this. The answers to the mystery are so poetically justified that one can’t blame Makkai for her shortcuts.
The novel is a mystery, yes, but the author fulfills the promise made in the first paragraph: “For a ghost story, the tale of Violet Saville Devohr was vague and underwhelming.” That sentiment goes for the so-called haunted house as well. A number of mysterious nighttime bumps and shattering windows with origins unknown feature in the book, but although the reader waits patiently until the very end for the suicidal ghost to nudge the characters over the ledge of madness on which they all seem to be perched, the only spirit haunting the characters is excessive alcohol intake. The spooks are minor and never significantly handicap the believability of the story, yet are distracting enough to notice. Makkai’s half-hearted attempts to personify the house as somehow responsible for the destruction that occurs within its walls come off as unnecessary and slightly kitschy.
Perhaps The Hundred-Year House’s greatest strength is its satirical humor. Makkai pokes fun at her character’s attempts to fit themselves into various molds so subtly that an unobservant reader wouldn’t catch it, would in fact nod along in understanding to the very actions that Makkai mocks. As most of the characters are either academics or self-proclaimed artists (“We’re awfully lucky to do what we do,” declares one painter to her philistine benefactor)–each representing an institution that merits some satire or interrogation at least–there is an abundance of pretention and self-delusion ripe for ridicule. Even so, just like their real-life counterparts, the pompous professors and painters gluing garbage to canvas and calling it “art” aren’t unlovable. The reader may even feel affection toward them, like one might towards a toddler bent on becoming an astronaut. Makkai expertly paints her characters as slightly ridiculous, but not to such an extent that the reader dismisses them.
The first read can certainly be at times frustrating; without any inkling of what the treasure is, the reader may become irritated with the ever-growing pile of seemingly irrelevant clues. But Makkai does an admirable job creating a world appealing enough, and characters intriguing enough (although many are of the “love-to-hate” variety), that the reader will persevere anyway. And that’s a good thing, because when the treasure finally is uncovered, the reader will want to start the hunt all over again.