Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Rebecca Makkai

Rebecca Makkai is a writer whose fiction has appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie, and has been selected for The Best American Short Stories 2009. Her work has also been featured in magazines such as New England Review, The Threepenny Review, Shenandoah, and The Iowa Review.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
One of these days I’m going to finish reading Proust. But right now, I have a toddler. I’ve been perfectly content with the necessity of reading short things, or things that can at least be swallowed in small bites, largely because everything I’ve read this summer has been so damn good.

I’ve been picking away for several weeks at State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America (eds. Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey), which consists of fifty essays by fifty different writers, on states they live in or grew up in or were simply paid to write about. Loosely modeled on the Federal Writers’ Project state guides from the 1930s, this project gave writers a lot more license than the WPA did. Some essays are personal, some are educational, and their scope ranges from the broad (Tony Horwitz recounting almost the entire grisly history of Virginia in nine very readable pages) to the extremely narrow (Jacki Lyden on the Bosnian newspaper kingpin of St. Louis).

Any time you ask fifty different writers to address similar subjects you’ll get some unfortunate overlap, and the less inspired essays do find a bit too much common ground. The ones that fall into the trope of “this used to be a great state, but it’s now overrun with tourism, pollution and corruption, but hey, come to think of it, that’s actually what I love about it” do melt into one giant puddle of bittersweet.

So it’s the writers who clearly love their states – passionately, hopelessly, effusively – who stand out. I loved Dave Eggers’ hyperbolic and ultimately quite touching essay on Illinois; Alexander Payne’s love letter to Nebraska (after which I literally turned to my husband and said “I want to move to Omaha!”); and Ann Patchett’s ode to the flora of Tennessee. The exception that proves the rule is Jonathan Franzen, whose disenchanted mock-interview with the state of New York and her entourage is hilarious.

And Anthony Doerr deserves special mention for writing eight pages on Idaho without ever once mentioning potatoes.

By far my favorite entry of the bunch – and the one I’ve gone back to reread at least ten times – is Alison Bechdel’s graphic essay on Vermont [detail at right]. This was a surprise for me. I’d never felt drawn to graphic novels or comics, mentally filing them under the vague rubric of “manga,” something very not me, some sort of pornography for the Dungeons and Dragons set. I stand corrected.

I loved Bechdel’s entry so much that I ran out and bought Fun Home, her graphic memoir. Bechdel’s closeted father died in what may or may not have been a suicide only a few days after Bechdel herself came out of the closet, and Fun Home is the story of their relationship and its aftermath. It’s funny and extremely intelligent, and – as a graphic novel – it does things that writing alone simply cannot do. In one early set of panels, the pictures show a preadolescent Bechdel running out of the house after one of her father’s rages, while the captions tell the story of Daedalus and Icarus. In fiction, this could only have been a heavy-handed simile or a labored metaphor. In a graphic novel, it’s delicate and effortless.

Inspired by the entire graphic form (and I should point out here that I mean inspired to read, not, God forbid, to attempt drawing) I turned next to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (in English translation). Satrapi’s chiaroscuro panels are highly stylized, sometimes resembling nothing so much as Escher prints. Here, the art seems not just a mode of expression but an absolute necessity, in the sense that we can best take in the horrors of war through a lens of beauty and abstraction (which is perhaps why poetry about war is so often more effective than prose). The panel showing a child’s understanding of what it means to be “chopped to pieces” is heartbreaking and funny and beautiful and disturbing. It’s a story in and of itself.

Tim Horvath’s novella Circulation is visual in a different way. There are no pictures here save for the maps that comprise the cover, but the story of a librarian and his dying father and the fictions they weave together is intrinsically graphic. The father has written a forgotten book on caves, and has spent much of his adult life researching a book called The Atlas of the Voyages of Things, which was to contain maps and essays about the way things circulate – ideas, the Trade Winds, drugs, cars. The second part of the story consists of the librarian, Jay, inventing for his father the circulation history of his library’s copy of the cave book. Horvath seems to be channeling, all at once, Borges and Calvino and Kevin Brockmeier. And it all works, as a lovely little meditation on how one thing leads to another.
Read Makkai's story "The Worst You Ever Feel," from The Best American Short Stories 2008, and "The Briefcase," her story from the forthcoming The Best American Short Stories 2009.

Learn more about the author and her work at Rebecca Makkai's website.

--Marshal Zeringue