Right now, everyone is talking about I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai. I was lucky enough to be able to get a copy from my library fairly quickly, so I'm feeling pretty fortunate to be able to join in the discussion.
The Good: Hm. Well, it's quite readable. It only took me a few days to get through it and it was certainly a page turner, although I think it's a problem that I didn't really care who killed the victim.
The Bad: This book is a thematic mess. I just read Yellowface, which, regardless of whatever criticisms you might have of it, is spot on in terms of what it's criticizing and what its major themes are. This book is just a jumble. Is it a criticism of the proliferation of true crime media and its exploitation of victims of crime? Is it an exploration of the subtleties of the #metoo movement? Is it an indictment of racial and socioeconomic privilege? Is it another story about a white savior trying to single-handedly fix the criminal justice system in the US? Is it really just a story about a woman trying to solve the murder of a classmate fifteen years later?
Here's the thing. The author probably thinks it's about all those things and maybe it is. It's just not doing any of them well.
The main character never interrogates her own privilege. Other characters repeatedly ask her who's taking care of her children (answer: her ex) and she's always so offended because it's a question people never ask men. Fair enough. But she doesn't ever stop to think about how lucky she is that she has a co-parent who can help her and that she doesn't have a co-parent who has a job with inflexible hours, a co-parent who is incarcerated, a co-parent who is disabled, or a co-parent who is just plain missing.
She never stops to think about what role her own connections had in getting her to the boarding school she returns to or about the advantages that attending the school gave her in her further education and career. She never stops to think about how her experience as a fat white girl contrasted with the non-white students at her school. She never stops to think about anything if it didn't impact her own life.
Maybe that's fine. Maybe Bodie, our main character, is just self-absorbed and doesn't think about how things impact others. We were all teenagers who couldn't see anything past our own starring roles in our own tiny lives. Maybe it's fine if we're left to do the ruminating about the other people surrounding Bodie on our own. Maybe it's fine if Makkai leaves us to determine what we think the main theme of the book is. (But I don't actually think it's fine.)
The Ugly: This is a Pulitzer Prize nominated author. Why is the writing so pedestrian? Outside of the dialogue, which I thought was well-done, the author spends way too much time writing uninspired exposition. Consider these two passages taken from random places I opened to:
I hesitated. This was where things fell apart for me. I didn't trust anything about you anymore...(page 214)
They ask for a hair sample, a saliva sample. I do that, and they let me go. (page 310)
It's the opposite of sparkling. There were moments of interesting writing, but I was underwhelmed.
I don't know, friends. A lot of people like this book. I'm not one of them. 2.5/5 stars
Lines of note:
The dog licked my face, and I marveled at the little pocket her wrinkles made between her eyes. You could stash a spare piece of kibble in there. (page 31)
This. This shows me that Makkai can write fun, observational writing. Why didn't she do this through the whole book?
There had once been a pay phone here; now there was a phone charging station. (page 251)
I did like this as a way to show passage of time. Little things that represent larger ideas.
March 2022: I sent back a photo of my own face: airplane hair, glasses instead of contacts, a cloth mask with little ferns...(Page 292)
What? Why was someone wearing a cloth mask in March 2022? At that point, you were either wearing a N95/KN95 or nothing.
My friend Elise, who loves astrology, told me I'd probably experience my Uranus opposition. It happens to everyone in their early forties, she said - a huge shake-up, a burn-it-all-down time, voluntary or involuntary, that rearranges your life. (page 301)
Is this a thing? Should I be waiting on the edge of my seat for a huge shake-up?
List passages: One criticisms this book gets is that Makkai has entire pages that are just lists of true crime/infamous cases. I actually thought these lists were an attempt to link the #metoo and true crime criticism themes and sort of liked the puzzle of trying to figure them out.
But I've cared as much, I admit, about people I haven't met. I care about Judy Garland (1) and Natalie Wood (2) and the Black Dahlia (3). I care about the lacrosse player (4) murdered by her ex at UVA, and the girl (5) whose boyfriend was definitely not working at LensCrafters that day, and the high school student (6) killed in her boyfriend's Shaker Heights backyard while everyone slept, and poor Martha Moxley (7), and the woman in the hotel elevator (8), and the woman shot through the bathroom door by her famous boyfriend (9), who claimed he thought she was a burglar. I have opinions about their deaths, ones I'm not entitled to, I'm queasy, at the same time, about the way they've become public property, subject to the collective imagination. I'm questions about the fact that the women whose deaths I dwell on are mostly beautiful and well-off. That most were young, as we prefer our sacrificial lambs. That I'm not alone in my fixations. (page 17)
My explanation of passage #1:
(1) Garland, an actress probably most famous for her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, died of an overdose that some people think is more mysterious than it is.
(2) Wood was another Hollywood actress. She drowned at age 43 after fleeing a yacht after a fight with her husband, actor Robert Wagner. Actor Christopher Walken and Captain Dennis Davern were also on the yacht. How her death occurred is shrouded in mystery.
(3) Elizabeth Short was found murdered in LA in 1947. Her case was highly publicized because it was gruesome and her corpse was mutilated. This in an unsolved crime.
(4) Yeardley Love was murdered by George Huguely V in 2010. He was sentenced to twenty-three years for his crime.
(5) Hae Min Lee was the subject of the podcast Serial. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was found guilty of her 1999 murder. There's been a lot of back and forth on Syed's conviction, but this sentence is referencing Lee's other ex-boyfriend, Don, who worked at LensCrafters, but whose alibi is shaky because his mom was the manager and (maybe?) the timecard was filled in by hand.
(6) Lisa Pruett was just sixteen when she was stabbed more than twenty times. Kevin Young was tried and acquitted of the murder. Her boyfriend, Dan Driefort was also the focus of investigation, but he was never charged.
(7) Martha Moxley was a fifteen-year-old who was violently murdered with a golf club. A member of the Kennedy family probably committed this crime, but his conviction has been overturned.
(8) Elisa Lam died of an accidental drowning in a cistern on the roof of an LA hotel. There's a video of her on an elevator making unusual movements and gestures. She was having a bipolar episode and it's all explainable, but some people really exploit this death as somehow supernatural.
(9) Reeva Steenkamp was murdered by Oscar Pistorius, a former Olympic sprinter in South Africa in 2013. He is still in jail, but is unlikely to serve more than five or six years for this crime.
There was once a man they caught because he claimed he hadn't left the state - but the dead bugs on the windshield of his rental car could only have come from California. (10)
There was a man they caught because he'd ordered the knife on Amazon. (11)
There was a man they caught because his name was on the Starbucks cup in her trash. (12)
There was a man who was told that his wife's body had been found in the woods. He arrived on the scene and instead of running toward the police tape, he ran to the exact spot where he'd left her body. (13)
There was a guy whose claim of earlier consensual sex fell apart because his semen was in her body, but not in her underwear or pants. "Because dead women," the prosecutor explained, "don't stand up." (14)
There was a woman (15) who managed to cut her captor's driver's license into twenty little pieces and swallow them so when they found her body his ID would be in her stomach. And they arrested him. They brought him in for questioning. But they never pressed charges against him. (page 386)
My explanation of passage #2:
(10) Vincent Brothers killed his wife, his mother-in-law, and his three children. He created an alibi for himself by flying to Ohio to visit his brother. From there, he drove a rental car to Bakersfield, California and murdered his family before returning back to Ohio. Forensic entomologists showed that there were insects native to states west of the Rocky Mountains on the rental car's windshield. Odometer readings also supported the round-trip to California. Brothers was sentenced to death.
To quote Dumbledore, at this point, I'm "entering the realms of guesswork and speculation."
(11) I'm less sure about this one. I think it's the case of the 2022 killings of Madison Mogen (21), Kaylee Goncalves (21), Xana Kernodle (20), and Ethan Chapin (20) in Moscow, Idaho. Bryan Kohberger has been charged with these crimes and some of the evidence collected from the crime scene include his DNA found on a knife that is the same kind as one he had purchased from Amazon months earlier.
(12) I'm a bit stumped on this one. There was a case in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in which they caught the killer more than forty years later using DNA obtained from a coffee cup he used at an airport, but that's not the same as finding the cup in the victim's trash. Anyone know what this reference is?
(13) No real clue on this one. Sounds like an apocryphal story, but I'm here for it if you know what it is.
(14) See #13.
(15) What even is this? Is this real?