Most of the stories in Rebecca Makkai’s new collection Music for Wartime actually do concern music and war—if not true armed conflict then more metaphorical wars, like the slow death of a relationship or the misfortunes that befall an English professor who accidentally shoots an albatross (including plenty of terrible “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” jokes). The 17 stories here range from realistic, if mildly implausible, to blatantly surreal, like Johann Sebastian Bach popping out of a piano as its owner plays Minuet in G. At their best, they show off Makkai’s talent, previously exhibited in her 2014 novel The Hundred Year House, for blending past and present. At their worst, they state their themes too explicitly or rush to easy resolutions.
Fortunately, these cases are rare. The strangest and most haunting pieces, though, aren’t fiction at all. Makkai’s grandparents were from Hungary. Her grandfather, a member of parliament, wrote the Second Jewish Law in 1939, which set strict quotas for Jews in most professions, including the theater. Her grandmother, a former actress, left him the same year and, during the war, taught young girls how to impersonate old women in order to smuggle things in and out of the Budapest ghetto. In a series of short pieces interspersed throughout the collection, Makkai wrestles with this history. “But if this were your family legacy . . . could you change it?” she wonders. “Would you dare?” Or is it like the toy bomb a friend gave her on her sixth birthday? “When I was feeling brave,” Makkai writes, “I’d nudge it with the toe of my sneaker. I was never entirely convinced that it wouldn’t, one day, explode.”
Reading Thu 8/13, 7:30 PM, Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark, 773-769-9299, womenandchildrenfirst.com, free.