Rebecca Makkai’s new book, #metoo on campus

“AND what if my memories were false dreams? What if my dreams were real memories?”. If she asks Bodie Kane, brilliant podcaster who returns to his old high school in New Hampshire to teach a class and gets sucked into the past. Twenty years earlier her roommate Thalia Keith was killed and the black athletic trainer, Omar Evans, convicted of the murder.

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The border between truth and memories by Rebecca Makkai

But did it really happen like this? Memories and reconstructions of the time are questioned from one of Kane’s students, who wants to make a podcast about Thalia. It is at that point that the established truth becomes fluid, malleable. And the characters of that time begin a journey of reviewing memories that will lead to a different conclusion.

I have some questions to ask you from the award-winning Rebecca Makkai (Pulitzer Prize finalist with The big dreamers), it might seem like a psychological thriller, a feminist novel, a true crime mystery, but basically it doesn’t obey any gender. It is a metanovel built on different narrative levels, which It takes place in a context of gender violence and at the dawn of the #MeToo movementthrough which the female characters reinterpret certain past experiences, such as the compliments of that slightly too casual professor and the unwanted attention of their classmates.

Rebecca Makkai lives in Chicago. University teacher, she is the author of novels and short stories. With The Big Dreamers you were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. (Photo © 2019 Brett Simison)

Nothing is as it seems in Makkai’s novel and she is pleased with it: «My job is to complicate things, not simplify them. Mix, confuse and problematize your beliefs.”

His characters wonder whether they should re-examine the past with today’s standards. What does she answer?
I don’t have an answer, but I think everyone asks this question. Especially in the last six years (since #MeToo started, ed), each of us has done or said something in the past that we would no longer do or say today. Some of these things can be forgiven, some cannot. But who decides?

Has he experienced the misogny and sexism that Bodie Kane suffers too?
And what woman hasn’t tried them? The details of the novel are fictional but those types of attacks or comments were directed at me or one of my loved ones.

I have some questions to ask you by Rebecca Makkai Bollati Boringhieri, 480 pages, €19

She also explores the other side of #MeToo, when this tool is exploited to generalize and transform every man into a predator. Why?
We are still learning to manage all of this. Sometimes it seems to us that someone has been accused of a trifle or convicted of something for which they are not guilty. In reality these cases are really rare, but I think they bother all of us. This is why it is an aspect that I wanted to deal with in the novel.

Why did you decide to use the true crime structure (a story of crimes that actually happened), a genre that you openly don’t appreciate?
Precisely to criticize him from the inside. With the novel I am able to pretend to participate in this genre, even adopting some of the worst parts, such as the objectification of victims and blood seeking for entertainment purposes, without actually writing about real people who might be harmed by the media interest.

In the novel everyone wants to comment and contribute to Thalia’s case, even if they know nothing about it. A mechanism that we also see online. Do human beings like being at the center of tragedies?
It’s a strange impulse, isn’t it? Maybe it has to do with the desire to validate our emotional responses or the craving for attention or perhaps the human need to be part of something.

She was inspired by the podcast Serialabout the murder of student Hae-Min Lee in Baltimore, which led to the alleged perpetrator’s release from prison after 23 years in prison?
Yes, but not in the way he thinks. I was inspired by the fact that the victim’s former high school friends had to reunite at a certain point for the reopening of the trial. So I also brought my characters back together to try to understand what had happened twenty years earlier.

She also investigates the fallibility of collective memory and the subjectivity of memory. What was the biggest difficulty in keeping the present and the past together?
The challenge has been to try to paint a clear picture of what happened in 1995 (at the time of Thalia’s murder) and at the same time constantly question that picture. This made the book fundamentally a novel about memory, its subjectivity and its limits.

Unlike a traditional mystery, here we have an ambiguous ending (we don’t want to reveal more). Did he want the readers to draw the conclusions?
I do not agree. The narrator is 99.9 percent sure how it happened. What I didn’t do was magically pop out a confession or create a world where the guilty are quickly arrested and the innocent easily exonerated. Telling such a story would be lying, and I was interested in looking at a case like this through the lens of realism.