January 2: “The Worst You Ever Feel” by Rebecca Makkai

For Day 2 of this project, I’ve chosen another story from a book I recently bought and just got the chance to read (gotta love the holiday break), Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai. Like me, Rebecca hails from Chicago, and I know her a little bit from events around the city—I think we were on a panel together at the Midwest Writers Festival in Milwaukee a few years ago. She is very kind and extremely talented, though before today, I’ve not read any of her work, only heard it out loud. I was excited to finally right that wrong.

The first story in the book, “The Singing Women,” is only a page long, and I think it’s too early for me to use short shorts for this project. That might be cheating, which I’m willing to do some night when I have a lot of grading or the Cubs have a double-header, but not January 2. Plus, after reading this little amuse bouche, I wanted to read more. Today, I’ll be writing about the second story in the collection, “The Worst You Ever Feel.”

The book’s first two stories indicate that the title of the book is as accurate as can be, both stories involving musicians doing their thing during a war. I’m not sure if the rest of the book  is going to live up to the title so faithfully, but I’ll find out, as I’d like to finish this book, see what comes next (hint: I liked the stories I’ve read quite a bit).

“The Worst You Ever Feel” features a young boy named Aaron as the protagonist, and is told in a limited third person POV. I think this is the right choice for this story. Third limited is usually best when kids serve as the main characters, no need to try to get into that head too closely, to imitate that voice, but instead let the unreliability come out in different ways. The story is set in Aaron’s Chicago (I assume, because of a Jewel/Osco reference) home, the night his musician parents are having a pretty fabulous-sounding party, one with food and drink and post-bedtime lingerings. Most of all, this party features the great nine-fingered violinist, Radelescu, who taught Aaron’s father violin in Romania before WWII and is teaching Aaron now (the story is set in 1990, for no other reason than Radelescu needs to still be alive). Radelescu plays as people drink, whisper, and fawn, and overall, it’s an amazing setting for a story, this party, from Makkai’s chosen perspective, Aaron watching from a staircase above like a puppet master (her analogy, not mine), describing all the sights, pretending to manipulate the guests as they commiserate.

Or does he pretend? One of the intriguing creations Makkai includes are references to some supernatural abilities Aaron seems to possess. When first introduced, I couldn’t help but think of the kid in The Sixth Sense—ghosts are involved—but Makkai takes it in a different, surprising, and subtle direction, and it’s just one fine detail in a story filled with fine details. I admire her restraint here, among so many other skills.

As noted yesterday, I won’t be giving away the endings of stories in these posts, not very much beyond the set up. I just want to highlight Makkai’s mastery over the point of view in this story, both in terms of the perspective and the unreliability of this young, overwhelmed, and tired kid; it’s pointed out several times that Aaron is spoiled as an American, as he will never know the burdens of war, and that becomes a burden itself.

I also want to note how Makkai had me hearing music, violin music, throughout the story. I am not a classical music buff, don’t know much about the violin, and am drastically tone deaf—reading about music usually confuses and eventually angers me, as the terms feel like another language, and let’s face it: Describing music in writing is as easy as describing a taste or a smell. Writers can list the instruments and the volume and the tempo, but really, there’s only so much they can do to make the reader hear a piece they haven’t heard before. I felt the music happening while I was reading her story. It’s a handy skill to have when writing a book about music and musicians.

The story itself, though confined to this home during this party on this particular night, feels lush and expansive, as flashbacks to Radelescu’s wartime narrative, which include Aaron’s father, tell the big picture, the literal music during wartime. They are, as you might imagine, heartbreaking and inspiring, and Makkai pulls no punches in depicting the horrors of war, a nice contrast to the beauty that is music, the dichotomy that serves as the book’s central theme (or at least so far).

I am sorry it took me so long to read Makkai’s work, as she’s so cool and her prose is tight and full of sensory details, her storytelling is top-notch. I look forward to the rest of this book, and also hope to get to her much-acclaimed novel, The Hundred-Year House, which won all kinds of awards. I highly recommend. Two for two!