A Podcaster Goes Back to School, Ready to Listen
I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU, by Rebecca Makkai
Among his many accomplishments, the comedian Stephen Colbert popularized the current usage of truthiness to describe the idea that something seems true even if it may not be.
It’s this definition that Rebecca Makkai wrangles with in her engrossing suspense novel “I Have Some Questions for You,” the follow-up to “The Great Believers,” a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. A New Hampshire boarding school in winter, snow-marbled; an unsolved mystery; the shadows of dark academia — all weave together in a spellbinding work that underscores how we’re constrained within the bubbles of our biases.
A year into the Trump administration, 40-year-old Bodie Kane, a Los Angeles-based journalist who hosts a podcast on women in film, is invited back to Granby, her alma mater, to teach a two-week workshop. She’s separated from her husband, Jerome, but they’re on excellent terms, living side-by-side in a duplex while parenting two young children. She’s yearning to reconnect with Yahav, an Israeli lawyer in Boston, her on-again-off-again lover.
In her youth Bodie was an outsider. After the deaths of her father and brother, she’d withdrawn from her narcissistic mother and was later adopted by a local Indiana couple with ties to Granby. As a student she’d lurked on the margins, sporting Goth eyeliner and “taped-up Doc Martens,” assisting Mr. Bloch, the music-department guru, with tech functions and stage management. Perched in the back of the theater, Bodie had seen — or perhaps she’d ignored — the dramas roiling amid adolescents and adults, a tactic of self-preservation.
“Every detail I overheard made the world more navigable,” she notes.
Aside from Fran, the daughter of teachers, she’d remained aloof from her classmates, a medley of skiers and international pupils and the neglected scions of the well heeled. “I Have Some Questions for You,” then, plants its flag squarely in literary terrain that stretches across Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” to Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep” to Susan Choi’s “Trust Exercise.”
There’s an intoxicating sense of theater in Makkai’s premise: Just months before their 1995 graduation, Bodie’s junior-year roommate, Thalia Keith — gorgeous and charismatic, more acquaintance than friend — was found drowned in the gymnasium’s pool after a performance of “Camelot.”The cast had already dispersed to nearby woods, where they were tossing back beers. DNA evidence pointed to Omar Evans, a 25-year-old Black athletic trainer, who confessed under relentless police interrogation. He later recanted the confession, but was sentenced to prison, where he’s languished for over two decades.
Back on campus in 2018, Bodie obsesses over the case. She’s increasingly convinced Omar didn’t do it. Her professional interests in noir crime kick into gear, echoed by Makkai’s wordplay (Black Dahlia/white Thalia). Bodie enlists the aid of her students and an ambivalent Fran, now on the school’s staff: They sift through interviews and transcripts for fresh data. There are hints and clues, trails gone cold and then hot again, a few meddling kids.
The you in the novel’s title is Mr. Bloch, long departed from New Hampshire. He may have groomed Thalia for sex. Bodie begins her tale with an accusation that doubles as a lament: “What could be more romantic? What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own.”
Bloch is the bull’s-eye in Bodie’s sights: “Don’t get me wrong: I wanted your head on a pike.”
“I Have Some Questions for You” is unabashedly Makkai’s #MeToo novel, brimming with mordant wit, alluding to high-profile predators and a controversial list of male media offenders. Bodie wears her lefty politics on her sleeve, but she also grasps that moral reckonings are rarely straightforward: They’re molded by a host of social influences and the terra incognitaof neurobiology. When a female artist targets Jerome, alleging an inappropriate relationship and unleashing a Twitter mob, Bodie’s instinct is to defend him. “What measures did any of us have for the truth?” she asks.
Doth the lady protest too much? Makkai’s strategy — pegging social justice onto the frame of a thriller — doesn’t always hold together; her detours into preachy op-ed-speak disrupt the tempo. “I Have Some Questions for You” slows, speeds up, slows again. But gradually the beauty of the novel’s structure reveals itself, buttressing Bodie’s investigation with flashbacks and scenarios in which she or others may have killed Thalia.
Makkai steers us from red herrings to courtrooms to proof hiding in plain sight. Her prose is lean yet lush, with short, incantatory chapters and sentences as taut as piano wire. She imagines Thalia’s boyfriend, Robbie, as his own doppelgänger, though photographs had placed him at the post-performance party: “He feels like an animal, feels like when he’s flying down a hill in snow, when the fire flows into his muscles, when his body is a machine. He doesn’t tell his body what to do because it knows, it follows gravity.” And then: “Meanwhile the other Robbie is singing along with the boom box, a falsetto rendition of ‘Come Through My Window.’”
Both Bodie and Makkai strain to keep their confirmation biases in check — a good man is hard to find here — yet that tension tugs us forward. Makkai doesn’t quite stick her landing, relying on deus ex machina twists. Resolution — some montage of facts rather than truthiness — comes at personal cost, but also includes a pearl or two of wisdom. “I Have Some Questions for You” lacks the richer hues of this author’s earlier books, but it’s whip-smart, uncompromising and (mostly) a pleasure to read.
Hamilton Cain is contributing books editor at Oprah Daily and the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.”
I HAVE SOME QUESTIONS FOR YOU | By Rebecca Makkai | 448 pp. | Viking | $28