'I Have Some Questions For You' is a dark, uncomfortable story that feels universal
A long list of praiseful adjectives — sharp, twisty, enthralling, cerebral, surprising — would serve as a review of Rebecca Makkai's I Have Some Questions For You. However, that approach would fail to communicate just how labyrinthine, well constructed and multilayered the narrative is.
In fact, this review will probably fail as well given the word count constraint and the novel's 435 pages of unrelenting developments, memories and possibilities, but at least it will offer a larger view of the universe, characters and themes Makkai has woven together so well in this novel.
Bodie Kane is a successful podcaster and film professor who's coming back to Granby School, a New Hampshire boarding school where she spent some awkward, mostly depressing years, to teach a couple of courses for two weeks. However, the return isn't as simple as it sounds because Bodie's memories of her time there — which include a lot of family tragedy, dejection, harassment, and the murder of her former roommate, Thalia Keith, in the spring of their senior year — quickly become open wounds. Chief among the things Granby brings back is Thalia's death and the subsequent conviction of the school's athletic trainer, Omar Evans, who was rumored to be involved with Thalia and who sold weed to the students, for the murder. The case never went away and is still debated online, mostly because the authorities did a shoddy job with the investigation and Evans' defense was weak.
When one of her students decides to do a podcast on the case for the class, Bodie is pulled back in, and some new information, along with her questioning of how things were handled and her misgivings about how collective memory works and how discourses are built when it comes to crime and people of color, she soon finds herself obsessed with her time at Granby and something she knows — something that has haunted her for a long time — that might hold the key to Thalia's real murderer.
I Have Some Questions For You packs a lot, and the classes, the new podcast, and Bodie's memories are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Bodie's crumbling marriage, the news (especially the plethora of stories involving rape and harassment that, for some reason, mostly go unpunished), Bodie's research on Rita Hayworth, Granby's troubled history, and a Twitter mob coming for Bodie after she said some things online in defense of her estranged husband and then accidentally "liked" a racist meme all add to the sense of chaos that permeates the novel. In less capable hands, all of this would be too much and some of the subplots would get lost or become diluted, but Makkai manages to juggle every subplot brilliantly and each one sings with a unique voice that harmonizes beautifully with the crime story at the heart of the novel.
This is a dark, uncomfortable story about murder, racism, sexual abuse, grief, the nature of collective memory, privilege, the way humans want to be at the center of tragedy even when they're not, and feeling like an outsider. But Makkai's storytelling skills, Bodie's voice, and the novel's format make it almost impossible to put it down. This is a novel about questions, and the biggest question of them all — Who killed Thalia Keith? — becomes something akin to a floating signifier that refuses to be pinned down. There are chapters in which Bodie envisions different people committing the murder and creates a series of scenarios that possess some degree of plausibility, which means they all further complicate things and keep the reader guessing. Also, the reader isn't just the reader here: they are Denny Bloch, who was Granby's music teacher when Thalia was murdered, was involved romantically with Thalia, and whom Bodie suspects. The entire novel is Bodie addressing Bloch — you — and that creates a level of immediacy and strange intimacy that is rarely found in crime novels.
In I Have Some Questions for You, Makkai has carefully crafted a novel that inhabits a strange interstitial space between a whodunit, a crime novel with a few elements plucked from found footage films, a story that investigates personal and collective memory, a critique of social media as a place where context is lost and no mistake goes unpunished, and a literary novel about a woman in flux reckoning with her past while trying to navigate her tumultuous present. What is right? What is wrong? Can we ever know the truth about things we weren't there to witness? The questions in this novel are always there and they come at Bodie — and at the reader — relentlessly. In the end, the only thing that's clear from the start is that Makkai is a super storyteller with a knack for writing about very specific things that feel universal — and that this might just be her best novel yet.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.