A Novel That Probes the Line Between Justice and Revenge
The narrator in Rebecca Makkai’s novel I Have Some Questions for You has a healthy skepticism of true crime—but a decades-old murder pulls her in deep.
Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, I Have Some Questions for You, begins with a dark joke. The narrator is recounting conversations with strangers about the podcast she’s making, a Serial-style exploration of the murder of a girl at an elite boarding school in the ’90s. “Wasn’t that the one where the guy kept her in the basement?” they sometimes ask. “Wasn’t it the one where she was stabbed in—no. The one where she got in a cab with—different girl. The one where she went to the frat party …” The punch line isn’t just that violence against women has become so ubiquitous that the victims blur in our minds; it’s that the stories we tell about them have become completely formulaic—and we devour them anyway. The narrator goes on to promise us a particularly well-worn true-crime tale, aware of both its allure and its shortcomings: “It was the one where she was young enough and white enough and pretty enough and rich enough that people paid attention.” In just a couple of pages, Makkai sets up the tricky, meta undertaking of her fourth novel: working within a genre that she approaches with skepticism.
Doubts about the genre also trouble her narrator. Bodie Kane, a 40-year-old film professor and lauded podcaster, returns in 2018 to Granby, the ritzy New Hampshire boarding school she attended in the ’90s, to teach a pair of short courses—and “to measure myself against the girl who slouched her way through Granby.” As an overweight teen from small-town Indiana, she’d dressed in all black and clung to the shadows as a stage manager for the theater program. A couple of decades later, she finds that the present-day students cast her teen self and the mores of that era into stark relief.
The eager Gen Zers in Bodie’s podcasting seminar seem to have pole-vaulted over the awkward-teen phase. They all share their pronouns, one girl talks openly about clinical depression, and two of them debate which stories are theirs to tell. After the first class, a girl named Britt approaches Bodie to discuss the project she’d like to pursue: the grisly 1995 murder of a Granby senior named Thalia Keith. Britt is earnest, reciting the “problematic” aspects of the true-crime genre as they apply to this case—she fears that by focusing on a white girl’s murder, she would be “ignoring the violence done to Black and brown bodies.” But she has a social-justice angle: She’s convinced that Omar Evans, the school’s young Black athletic trainer imprisoned for the crime, was the victim of racist policing.
Bodie is struck by how much more clued in Britt is than she was at that age: Back then, she’d merely thought of Omar’s conviction on largely circumstantial evidence as “odd.” Yet she is also well aware that Britt, hoping not to be just “another white girl giggling about murder,” is just another girl captivated by a familiar true-crime plotline. Not that Bodie is about to discourage her student—she herself is wildly curious, having been Thalia’s roommate and having spent countless hours over the years spelunking Reddit boards devoted to the case.
I Have Some Questions for You seems at first glance like a retreat for Makkai, whose previous novel, The Great Believers, was a brilliant and ambitious chronicle of the AIDS epidemic. Following a group of gay men in Chicago in the 1980s and deftly interweaving plots from different time periods, Makkai captured the scourge’s devastating long-term repercussions in a city given far less attention than either Los Angeles or New York. Yet look again, and I Have Some Questions for You, too, tackles big social convulsions that raise questions about memory, and about how we assign blame. But this time, training a wary eye on our true-crime obsession and on #MeToo revelations, Makkai conveys less confidence that we have useful means of excavating and telling the stories that haunt us. The novel’s dizzying tour of tweets and headlines and podcast sound bites leaves us unmoored even as it has us hooked—and that’s precisely the point.
As Bodie tries to recall the events surrounding Thalia’s murder, other parts of her past bubble up, and the book takes a #MeToo turn. Like so many women did in early 2018, Bodie resurrects memories from long ago, now “looking at their ugly backsides, the filthy facets long hidden.” She fumes at the sexist treatment she and other girls were expected to laugh off—being groped, being made the punch line of crude jokes. The overly familiar approach of a beloved music teacher, she reluctantly recognizes, was grooming, and the boys’ game of “Thalia Bingo” was harassment. (It involved “a sheet on which they could initial squares that said things like touched outside clothes, or under clothes above waste ... or asked out, or fucked.”) Her newly attuned vision reminds her of the first time she put on glasses “and looked in wonder at the trees, and felt inexplicably betrayed. Those clearly delineated leaves had been there all along, and no one ever told me.”
But before long, Bodie begins to have doubts about her new vantage. Aware that her memories aren’t offering the full picture, she resorts to a kind of kaleidoscopic fantasy; in pulpy chapters scattered throughout the novel, she imagines how various people—her peers, a teacher, even she herself—would have killed Thalia, and why. She hopes Britt’s podcast will fill in some of the blanks, aware though she (sometimes) is of the slippery way that stories can become substitutes for truth: “I wanted Britt to take me there. I wanted second sight. I wanted the ability to remember things I was never there for.”
Here, Makkai begins to toy with an urgent question for a society steeped in true-crime and #MeToo narratives: Should we evaluate the past by the standards of today? In lieu of an answer, she calls attention to the inadequacy of the storytelling modes we count on. Desperate to know who killed Thalia, Bodie falls for a formula that she cautioned her podcasting students against: intruding with new theories too soon rather than exploring questions. Seen through the veil of Thalia’s murder, all past male misbehavior takes on a more sinister shape for Bodie, and she clings stubbornly to the idea of one predatory man as the perpetrator. Even when she’s proved wrong, she can’t stop seeing guilt spreading widely.
When confronted with drama closer to home, her vision shifts. After her husband, Jerome, is attacked online for a murky situation involving a long-ago girlfriend, Bodie suddenly becomes much more interested in making distinctions among various harms against women. (At the time, Jasmine was a 21-year-old gallery assistant, and Jerome was a painter in his mid-30s; since then, she’s become a performance artist, and asserts in a piece that he wielded his power in discomfiting ways.) Now Bodie applies rigid bounds to a #MeToo claim. Drunk in the bath, she takes to Twitter to blast the online mobs for equating shitty behavior with “ACTUAL sexual assault,” for suggesting that a grown woman lacks sexual agency. Offline, she admits to being more conflicted—and not just about Jerome: “I no longer had any sense of what was true … I couldn’t figure out who knew more about what happened to Thalia: me now, or me at barely eighteen.”
Makkai isn’t here to adjudicate, but to complicate. She juxtaposes examples and leaves it to us to draw connections and comparisons like detectives layering red string on an evidence board. Bodie sees a line between the Twitter mobs and the true-crime obsessives—both are “inserting themselves into someone else’s story,” their voyeurism infused with zeal to apportion blame and deliver some sort of justice. Crucially, these true-crime fans and #MeToo spectators aren’t merely passive consumers. They have the power to alter lives, sometimes in extreme ways: Jerome is tweeted out of a job; a later, more-polished iteration of Britt's podcast prompts a reappraisal of Omar’s conviction, and Bodie’s sleuthing influences what happens in court.
As we race through the novel, we’re pulled into playing much the same role as Bodie does: trying to piece together the various stories, eagerly awaiting a verdict. We’re all but sure who did it by the end, but Makkai denies us the satisfaction of a confession or of justice cleanly served. Instead, she leaves us to fill in the gaps, to conjure the lurid details from scraps and rumors—trapped in a quest, her agile book reminds us, that should always leave us second-guessing.
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.