My Old School

Rebecca Makkai looks at right and wrong in I Have Some Questions for You.

rebecca makkai, i may have some questions for you, novel, fiction, book review, alta jounral
Brett Simison

Stories as ancient as time serve as the literary genealogy of Rebecca Makkai’s fifth book of fiction, I Have Some Questions for You. The novel’s plot—revolving around high school and online chatter and wrongful conviction—initially echoes the 2014 Serial podcast about Adnan Syed, a Pakistani American teenager convicted of murdering a high school classmate in 1999. Makkai, however, is after something sharper: the sense of ownership we allow ourselves to feel in examining and speculating about the tragedies of others.

I Have Some Questions for You is narrated, in a closely observed and intelligent first person, by Bodie Kane, a Los Angeles podcast host and film studies professor. There’s a pervy private high school trainer she suspects may have slept with and killed her roommate. It’s a crime for which a Black man, Bodie has come to believe, was wrongfully convicted.

It’s much later when she leaves Los Angeles, where her family lives, to teach at her alma mater, but reimmersing in the place conjures this man, along with a number of complicated memories about the murder. Half-aware that her motives are mixed, Bodie includes the killing of her roommate on a list of possible topics in a podcasting class. One student comments, “This is no offense, but, like, I know you do a lot of true crime on your podcast, and I think it’s a problematic genre.” It’s the exploitative nature of this problematic genre that the novel explores while building off the particulars of Bodie’s story.

Bodie is immediately fascinating, both for her vivid backstory and her circumstances as a complex, intelligent woman separated from her husband. Like any good detective—or, for that matter, curious obsessive—she dives down rabbit holes, on the internet and in real life. Bodie hoards secrets about other people. “I cared about details,” she reflects. “Not because they were something I could control, but because they were something I could own.”

Poetry streaks her observations of other characters: “To them, Thalia was a face from a few well-shared photos: a life barely sketched out, rather than a girl who smelled like that Sunflowers perfume, whose laugh sounded like hiccups, who’d toss herself onto her bed like a hand grenade.” The tone is nonchalant, yet it frames a provocative, unusual comparison that calls up the violent changes associated with puberty: girl as explosive device. Makkai makes sentences that undo us with their amalgamation of nostalgia, sensory evocation, and danger. We know it’s coming. We keep watching.

We keep turning pages, as we do with true crime.

As she has in previous books, most recently in The Great Believers, Makkai makes history speak to the contemporary. Here, the 1990s and our current zeitgeist are in conversation. A confessional mode may mark both eras, but contemporary technologies have changed everything. The ensuing lack of privacy, ironically, is also how we, like Bodie, know not only that sexual predation is appallingly common, but also that society seems to care only when privileged women are the victims.

Canny subplotting—Bodie’s husband is eviscerated by a #MeToo art piece that casts him as a predator—requires us to consider to what extent our perceptions of justice are not universal but contextual, depending, alarmingly, on our intimacy with either victim or perpetrator. Yet Makkai refuses the trap of the particular also. One of her most effective and knowing techniques is to string specifics together:

It was the one where her body was never found. It was the one where her body was found in the snow. It was the one where he left her body for dead under the tarp. It was the one where she walked around in her skin and her bones for the rest of her life but her body was never recovered.
You know the one.

You can feel in that rhythm, its exquisitely controlled repetition, the interchangeability of the perpetrators and their victims. Three short declaratives, and then a sentence that turns on a “but” only to suggest to us that none of the bodies were recovered, none of the mysteries solved. Each sentence-long story might be presented as different from the others by a journalist or lawyer, Bodie realizes, but they are all eventually, simply, the same story featuring violence against women and the same lack of accountability.

While up-to-the-minute in its technologies, the novel is gently timeless in its inquiries. Who hasn’t wondered, after all, whether the teenager they used to be observed things incorrectly, and who hasn’t questioned whether a secret impropriety involving someone they knew was somehow distinct from what they watched with greater distance as a source of entertainment?

Even when the novel leaps several years ahead, it maintains a profound awareness that time deforms our memories of relationships, our understanding of what things once meant to us.•



Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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