A novel that analyzes the magnetism of true crime

Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, I have a few questions for you, begins with a dark joke. The narrator narrates conversations with strangers about the podcast she is making, a Serial-style exploration of the murder of a girl at an elite boarding school in the 90s. “Wasn’t that what kept the guy in the basement?” they ask sometimes. “It wasn’t where she was stabbed – no. The one where he got into a cab with—different girl. The one where she went to the crash party…” The punch line isn’t just that violence against women has become so ubiquitous that the victims blur into our minds. it’s that the stories we tell about them have become completely formulaic — and we’re gobbling them up anyway. The narrator goes on to promise us a particularly well-worn true-crime story, aware of both her charms and her shortcomings: “She was the one who was young enough and white enough and beautiful enough and rich enough that people paid attention. ” In just a few pages, Makkai sets up the difficult, meta-project of her fourth novel: working in a genre she approaches with skepticism.

Doubts about the genre also trouble her narrator. Bodie Kane, a 40-year-old film professor and acclaimed podcaster, is returning in 2018 to Granby, the posh New Hampshire boarding school he attended in the ’90s, to teach a pair of short courses—and to “measure myself against girl who bent her way through Granby.” As an overweight teenager from small-town Indiana, she had dressed in black and stuck in the shadows as a stage manager for the theater program. A few decades later, she finds that today’s students bring her teenage self and the mores of that era into relief.

The eager Gen Zers at Bodie’s podcasting seminar seem to have gotten over their teenage years. They all share their pronouns, one girl opens up about clinical depression, and two of them discuss which stories are theirs to tell. After the first lesson, a girl named Britt approaches Bondy to discuss the project she’d like to pursue: the gruesome 1995 murder of an elderly Granby woman named Thalia Keith. Britt is candid, reciting the “problematic” aspects of the true-crime genre as they apply to this case—she fears that by focusing on the murder of a white girl, she would “ignore the violence done to black and brown bodies.” But she has a social justice point of view: She is convinced that Omar Evans, the school’s young black athletic trainer who was jailed for the crime, was a victim of racist policing.

Bodie is struck by how much more aware Britt is than she was at that age: Back then, she just thought Omar’s conviction on circumstantial evidence was “weird.” However, she’s well aware that Britt, hoping she’s not just “another white girl laughing about murder,” is just another girl caught up in a familiar true crime plot. Not that Bodie is going to discourage her student—she’s curious herself, having been Thalia’s roommate and having spent countless hours over the years scouring the Reddit boards dedicated to the case.

I have a few questions for you seems at first glance like a refuge for Makkai, whose previous novel, The Great Believers, was a brilliant and ambitious chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. Following a group of gay men in Chicago in the 1980s and deftly weaving together plots from different time periods, Makkai captured the devastating long-term effects of the plague in a city that received far less attention than Los Angeles or New York. However, look again, and I have a few questions for youIt also deals with major social convulsions that raise questions about memory and how we assign responsibility. But this time, by carefully training our obsession with true crime and the #MeToo revelations, Makkai conveys less confidence that we have useful tools to unearth and tell the stories that haunt us. The novel’s dizzying tour of tweets and headlines and podcast audio leaves us unengaged even as we’re hooked — and that’s exactly the point.

As Bodhi tries to remember the events surrounding Thalia’s murder, other parts of her past bubble up and the book takes a #MeToo turn. Like so many women in early 2018, Bodie is reliving memories from long ago, now “looking at their ugly backs, the dirty sides that have been hidden for so long.” She resented the sexist treatment that she and other girls were expected to laugh at – petted, made to hear the line of crude jokes. A beloved music teacher’s overly intimate approach, he reluctantly admits, was grooming, and the boys’ game of “Thalia Bingo” was harassment. (It included “a sheet on which blocks could be started that said things like touch outerwearthe under clothes over waste … the he asked outsidethe fucking.”) Her newly attuned vision reminds her of the first time she put on glasses “and looked in wonder at the trees and felt inexplicably betrayed. Those clearly defined leaves were there all along, and no one ever told me.”

But before long, Bodie begins to have doubts about her new vantage point. Aware that her memories do not offer the full picture, she resorts to a kind of kaleidoscopic fantasy. in thick chapters scattered throughout the novel, she imagines how various people—her peers, a teacher, even herself—would kill Thalia and why. She hopes Britt’s podcast will fill in some of the gaps, knowing though (sometimes) the slippery way stories can become substitutes for the truth: “I wanted Britt to take me there. I wanted a second look. I wanted the ability to remember things I was never there for.”

Here, Makkai begins to play with an urgent question for a society steeped in true crime narratives and #MeToo: Should we evaluate the past by today’s standards? Rather than an answer, it draws attention to the inadequacy of the narrative modes we rely on. Desperate to find out who killed Thalia, Bodie falls into a formula she warned her students about on the podcast: jumping into new theories too early instead of probing questions. Seen through the veil of Thalia’s murder, all past masculine behaviors take on a more sinister form for Bodie, and she clings to the idea of ​​a predatory man as the perpetrator. Even when he’s proven wrong, he can’t stop watching the guilt spread widely.

When she is confronted with drama closer to home, her vision changes. After her husband, Jerome, is attacked online over a murky situation involving an old friend, Bodie suddenly becomes much more interested in discriminating between the various harms against women. (At the time, Jasmine was a 21-year-old gallery assistant and Jerome was a painter in his 30s; he has since become a performance artist and claims in a play that he used his power in disturbing ways. ) Now Bodie applies strict limits to a claim # MeToo. Drunk in the bathroom, she takes to Twitter to blast online mobs for equating promiscuous behavior with “REAL sexual assault” because it suggests a grown woman is deprived of sexual agency. Offline, she admits she’s more conflicted—and not just about Jerome: “I no longer had any sense of what was true … I couldn’t figure out who knew more about what happened to Thalia: me now or me at just eighteen.”

Makkai is not here to judge, but to confuse. He juxtaposes examples and lets us make connections and comparisons like detectives laying red string on a table of evidence. Bodi sees a line between Twitter mobs and true-crime obsessives – both “stepping into someone else’s story”, their voyeurism imbued with a zeal to apportion blame and deliver some kind of justice. Crucially, these true crime fans and #MeToo viewers are not just passive consumers. They have the power to change lives, sometimes in extreme ways: Jerome retires from his job at Twitter. a later, more sophisticated iteration of Britt’s podcast prompts a reassessment of Omar’s conviction, and Bodie’s sleuthing affects what happens in court.

As we move through the novel, we are drawn to play much the same role as Bondy: trying to piece together the various stories, eagerly awaiting a verdict. We’re all sure who did it by the end, but Makkai denies us the satisfaction of a confession or justice clearly served. Instead, she leaves us to fill in the blanks, to invent the tragic details from scraps and hearsay—caught up in a quest, her versatile book reminds us, that must always leave us second-guessing.

I have some questions for you – A novel

With Rebecca Mackay

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