Today’s Blog post comes from Silas Hansen.
My first experience with Rebecca Makkai’s “The November Story” was actually not in print, but from a This American Life podcast I listened to on my way to my parents’ house for two Thanksgivings ago. I’m a fan of Makkai’s work, had read several of her other short stories, and knew I’d enjoy it the moment I heard her name. Still, I was blown away—surprised by how quickly the story pulled me in, how deeply it affected me, how long it has stuck with me.
The narrator, Christine, is a producer for a reality television show—an American Idol-like contest where artists create work based on weekly prompts, which is then judged to decide if they should continue to the next round—and the story takes place almost exclusively on the set. Parts of the story made me laugh out loud: the way the narrator and the other producers manipulate the artist-competitors into saying negative things about each other and having the most dramatic facial expressions on camera, a description of producers and set-workers standing on ladders to pull leaves off the trees to make it look like November two months early, lines like “Eight days in, the producers tell us we need a romance arc. Kenneth says, ‘It has to be Leo and Astrid, because she’s the hottest girl, and he’s the only straight guy. We have to go hetero on this.’”
As the story progresses, we watch Christine and her co-worker, Inez, try to manufacture a romance between Leo, the musician, and Astrid, the glass-blower, while Christine’s relationship with her partner, Beth, is falling apart. The tension of Christine and Inez manipulating Astrid and Leo into “falling in love,” while Christine and Beth struggle to figure out why they are each still together and whether or not they should stay that way, is the stuff of great fiction. The tension quietly builds between these two storylines until they intersect, when Christine starts to feel guilty for meddling in Astrid and Leo’s personal lives—something she is paid to do and has always done—and jeopardizes the show (and her job) by promising Astrid that they’ll stop.
One of the last scenes of the story—after Christine says, “By the end, I never see Beth awake. I don’t know if we’re broken up, if we’re reconciled, if we’re the same as we always were. All I have is her unconscious body, beside me in the dark when I get into bed and beside me in the earliest gray light when I roll out. It might be a nice way to fade out of things: a life-sized Beth doll to wean me off the real thing.”—she is in the attic when she sees Leo and Astrid through the window, standing by the edge of the woods, kissing in secret. The producer thinks for a moment about getting one of the camera guys to come up to the attic, so they can use it on the show, but she instead stands there for a few moments, watching this display of affection—not love manufactured for television, but the real thing.
I was driving along I-86 in western New York when I listened to Makkai read this story, and while I know I was paying attention to the road enough not to cause an accident, I am certain I was on autopilot. I remember looking up at the road after the story ended and not remembering how I had gotten there. For weeks after, entire lines of the story were still stuck in my head. I listened again and again. I bought on a copy of Crazyhorse 78, where it was originally published, and have read it several times over the past year and a half. This past fall, when Rebecca Makkai read at Ohio State, and she read the first line of the story, I think I may have audibly cheered. It’s really just that good.
One of the things I love most about this story is the oddness of the setting. I’ve never read a story about reality television shows before—never been interested in doing so, never even watched a reality television show before this—and yet I was invested almost immediately. It’s weird, and it’s funny, but it never feels contrived or unbelievable or cartoonish. Instead, Makkai makes it seem like any other job and uses Christine’s work to complicate her relationship with Beth. When Inez asks Christine why she’s with Beth, even though she seems so unhappy, Christine narrates:
[…] the whole time I’m tearing at my thumbnail and trying to answer her question, as if I’m a contestant and must answer the question, and must rephrase the question as part of the answer.
I am with Beth because:
I’ve been fighting against her leaving for so long it’s the only thing I know how to do. It’s like that’s my character arc, like some producer has said, “We need you to be the quirky girl with the short hair who doesn’t want her girlfriend to leave.” And, like the best contestants, the ones chosen for their compliance, the ones who are secretly actors in their real lives as well as pianists or dancers, I go along with it. Because what other role do I have? Because who else am I?
One of my creative writing professors from undergrad, Anne Panning, told us that setting is one of the most underutilized devices in contemporary fiction. I agree—it’s hard to do right, and few people manage it. There’s either not enough about the setting, or there’s too much and it starts to take over; it either doesn’t do enough work, or it does too much. Makkai, though, has struck that balance. It never feels heavy-handed or too obvious, but without it, the story of the demise of Beth and Christine’s relationship wouldn’t be fully realized.
Silas Hansen earned his MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University. His essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere, and have earned two Pushcart nominations and an AWP Intro Journals Project Award. He lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he is working on a collection of essays. You can find him at silashansen.net.