Faith in Fiction: Rebecca Makkai’s Music for Wartime
“You’re not necessarily supposed to believe it,” Daniel Wallace writes as he strikes at the nature of storytelling in his 1998 novel Big Fish. “You’re just supposed to believe in it.” With this ideal in mind, Rebecca Makkai skillfully blurs the line between reality and fiction in her compilation of short stories entitled Music for Wartime. Mirroring the title of the collection, each of these seventeen stories mixes art and beauty with actuality and hardship, creating something both believably realistic and implausibly fictitious. Her stories range widely in topic from the death of a traveling circus elephant, to a lonely real-estate agent who falls in love with Johann Sebastian Bach, to a musical prodigy with ominous premonitions. Makkai uses these odd plot lines and varying levels of fantasy to insinuate that the complete verity of a story does not matter as long as one believes in the message and emotion it conveys.
Some of the stories in Makkai’s collection conform fully to the realm of fantasy. “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background,” for example, tells of a young woman who, while playing the piano one morning, coughs up Bach, the renowned eighteenth century composer, passes out, and later finds him in the back of her piano. She formulates a plan to seduce Bach so the offspring that she desperately desires will be a musical genius like its father. Despite the far-fetched nature of this situation, she exhibits incredibly human frustrations, desires, and weaknesses. For example, her soon-to-be ex-husband, she tells Bach one night, emotionally shut down after September 11: “I say, ‘So your whole vague, lapsed-Episcopal belief in God was based on those buildings being there? On nothing bad ever happening?’ It was like he’d never previously registered that there was evil in the world…And then Larry says I was more upset when we miscarried last year than when the towers got hit.” (93-94). Makkai uses the arrival of Bach in the middle of real-world trauma to comment on the pain that this couple suffers. This added supernatural layer tactfully uncovers her protagonist’s true heart in a way that a realistic plotline could not.
While not as fantastical as “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background,” other stories in her collection also sit on the cusp of reality and imagination. In “The Miracle Years of Little Fork,” for example, Makkai tells the story of a traveling circus elephant that dies during one of the circus’s stops in a small town. The performers stay in the town of Little Fork for a while in order to bury the elephant and adequately grieve, which causes a disruption of the citizens’ daily lives. These events, while slightly unusual, are not unequivocally fantastical. It is Makkai’s telling of them that pushes the story over the ledge into the domain of fantasy. “All this happened a very long time ago,” she writes. By mixing in this fairy tale and biblical diction and imagery, Makkai frays the edges of what could be a believable story. The town is plagued with a 40-day-and-night flood. A pregnant girl is hidden away in a tower and her caretaker, the pastor in the town, is often seen as a knight in shining armor rather than “just a man like me” (49). This all occurs in the midst of an ambiguous, far-away war. Makkai covers the story in this veil of fantasy in order to speak candidly about faith.
Even one of her most realistic stories, “November Story,” speaks to the constant manipulation of reality. This story tells of Christine, a woman working behind the scenes on a reality television show and simultaneously dealing with her deteriorating romantic relationship. Christine’s job is to interview contestants, poking and prodding them as she molds their words into something the producers want to hear. “It’s sick and it’s soulless, but it’s one of the addictive things about my job,” she says. “Here, you can force the world to be something it’s not” (35). Her girlfriend, distant and apathetic, accuses her of “playing God” (28). Christine spends her career constructing a fake reality for the world to see, ironically at the same time her personal reality is falling apart. Despite its lack of plagues, fairy tale imagery or time traveling composers, Makkai illustrates in this story that humans constantly distort the world around them.
Through this interconnection of fictions and facts, Makkai weaves the consistent motif of music and art to bring in another layer of magic and otherworldliness in order to uncover a greater truth in Music for Wartime. Art in itself, like fantastic elements in a story, distorts what is real so that others can see reality more clearly. Bach’s music, the art of a circus performer, and the creation of a television show bend reality in such a way that illuminate something much deeper than could be told in a realistic manner. It is why humans return again and again to art, music and storytelling. It’s not quite believable, as Wallace admits, but can be believed in. And that, Makkai expresses adeptly, is what matters in a story.