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Rebecca Makkai's smart, prep school murder novel is self-aware about the 'ick' factor

Maureen Corrigan reviews I Have Some Questions for You which she says "is both a thickly-plotted, character-driven mystery and a stylishly self-aware novel of ideas."



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Other segments from the episode on March 1, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 1, 2023: Interview with Cate Blanchett and Todd Field; Review of I Have Some Questions for You



This is FRESH AIR. Rebecca Makkai's novel "The Great Believers," about the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. Makkai's latest novel, "I Have Some Questions For You," may seem markedly different, given that it's set in the closed community of a New England boarding school, but our book critic Maureen Corrigan says here, too, larger social problems emerge. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Edgar Allan Poe, the creator of the modern mystery, was on to something when he declared that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic in the world. That weird and repugnant statement appeared over a century and a half ago in an essay called "The Philosophy Of Composition." But Poe could be talking about the popularity of true crime podcasts and documentaries in our own day. True crime's troubling obsession with the deaths of beautiful young women translates if not always into poetry, more predictably into high ratings. Rebecca Makkai is well aware of the ick factor inherent in the subject of her new novel, called "I Have Some Questions For You." Her main character, a middle-aged film professor and podcaster named Bodie Kane, returns to the New Hampshire boarding school she attended as an alienated scholarship student to teach a mini-course on podcasting.

Bodie has made a name for herself with her podcast called "Starlet Fever," which she describes as being about dead and disenfranchised women in early Hollywood, about a system that would toss women out like old movie sets. The subject of her podcast, along with her teaching stint at Granby, as the school is called, stir up Bodie's memories of the death of her junior year roommate, a beautiful and popular girl named Thalia Keith, whose broken, bloodied body was found in the school pool. An athletic trainer named Omar Evans, one of the few people of color at the school back in the 1990s, was quickly arrested and convicted of the murder.

But rumors linger, especially about a mysterious older man in Thalia's life. Semi-hip to her own self-interested motives, Bodie proposes Thalia's murder as a possible research topic to her class of wannabe podcasters. One zealous female student, after voicing concerns about fetishizing violent death, takes on the assignment just the way so many of us, after mulling over similar scruples, immerse ourselves into those true crime podcasts and documentaries or into this vastly entertaining novel about a fictional murder case.

"I Have Some Questions For You" is both a thickly plotted, character-driven mystery and a stylishly self-aware novel of ideas. It's being rightfully compared to Donna Tartt's 1992 blockbuster debut, "The Secret History," because of its New England campus setting and because of the haunting voiceover that frames both novels. Listen, for instance, to these fragments from Bodie's incantatory introduction.

(Reading) You've heard of her, I say - a challenge, an assurance - to the woman on the neighboring hotel bar stool, to the dentist who runs out of questions about my kids and asks what I have been up to myself. Sometimes they know her right away. Sometimes they ask, wasn't that the one where the guy kept her in the basement, the one where she went to the frat party, the one where he'd been watching her jog every day? No, it was the one with the swimming pool. That one. Because what is she now but a story, a story to know or not know, a story with a limited set of details, a story to master by memorizing maps and timelines?

Of course, in the decades since Tartt's groundbreaking campus mystery appeared, the internet has happened. Throughout "I Have Some Questions For You," the internet and its veritable flash mob of amateur online Columbos is a constantly intrusive character, posting videos and generating red herrings and other theories about Thalia's murder. Some of this material even changes the direction of the investigation launched by Bodie and her students. That investigation is almost derailed when, at a crucial moment, Bodie's estranged husband becomes the focus of a #MeToo accusation that threatens her own reputation as an advocate for women.

How do you tease out the facts, this novel insistently asks, from a subjective thicket of bias, wavering memories, groupthink and gossip? And how much does the form your investigation takes - in this case, a podcast - determine which details are spotlighted and which ones are ditched because they don't make a dramatic enough story? Don't worry, Makkai has not settled here for one of those open-ended ruminations on the impossibility of ever finding the truth. That kind of postmodern ending has worn out its welcome. But in a twist worthy of Poe, Makkai suggests that the truth alone may not set you free or lay spirits to rest.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Rebecca Makkai's new novel, "I Have Some Questions For You."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how QAnon and its conspiracy theories have changed American politics and changed the life of a journalist who's been covering QAnon from its start. Our guest will be Will Sommer, author of the new book "Trust The Plan." He grew up in a conservative Texas family that always listened to Rush Limbaugh. He left those politics behind, but started reporting on the far right including QAnon. His investigations into QAnon made him one of their targets. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I am Terry Gross.


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