Rebecca Makkai: The Borrower (Viking, 2011)

The Makkai Family Crest

The Makkai Family Crest

I might be the villain of this story. Even now, it’s hard to tell.
Back at the library, amid the books and books on ancient Egypt, the picture the children loved most showed the god of death weighing a dead man’s heart against a feather. There is this consolation, then, at least: one day, I will know my guilt.

I’ve got to stop climaxing in public.

Don’t worry – it’s not what you think. But it’s still embarrassing.

In the past, I’ve giggled over One Story at the mall and cried while reading “Blue” by David Brooks and Dean Paschal’s “the Puppies” on the bench outside the supermarket. I even told a bus driver about this great music story I’d just read, Didi Wood’s “ Elliot Carter is a Dead Man.” I’m not a publicly demonstrative person, really, I’m not; it’s the stories that make me do it.

And I never learn.

So there I was, in the local pub-and-grill I’ve mentioned before, scarfing down my once-a-month treat of a deliciously smoky grilled cheeseburger and impossibly crunchy-tender fries, engrossed in this novel (again; you’ll see what I mean presently). Everything was under control.

Then I hit these two italicized words on Page 279. They’re unassuming words; meaningless out of context, but if I told you what they are, you’d be prepped for them, and you really should stumble upon them, as I did. They hit me like a truck, brought all the disparate themes together, and imbued this slightly madcap road trip with a sense of purpose retroactively.

The waitress – magnificent in her patience and tolerance for oddities – is used to me by now. She’s seen me giggle, frown, scribble, highlight – and now, cry.

The family crest my father brought all the way from Moscow on a thick gold ring, with its carving of a man – book in right hand, severed head on pike in left. (This most famous Hulkinov was a seventeenth-century scholar-warrior, a man who heard the distant trumpets, left his careful books, fought for justice or freedom or honor. And here I am, the end of the line: twenty-first-century librarian-felon.)

If you’re not sure this book is for you, read the FAQ page page on Rebecca Makkai’s website. That should convince you. Or warn you away, for that matter; there are people who will take offense at some of the material here; though if you’re reading this blog, chances are you aren’t one of them. Unless you’re praying for me.

I’ve been reading Rebecca Makkai stories since I’ve been regularly reading BASS; She’s in the 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 collections (I’ve only blogged the last two) and I’ve liked all her stories. But I wasn’t planning to read this novel. Somewhere in my brain I connected it to the kid’s book The Borrowers (which, duh, it does refer to) and just wasn’t interested, until I read her aforementioned FAQ page (the cat-and-mustard joke is googleable) prior to attending a reading she gave at my local fiercely independent bookstore. Then I had to have it.

The horns didn’t lie. My father and I were alike, wagging our forked tails and stealing what we wanted. The devil only thinks of himself.

I loved so much the themes and riffs in this book: revolution, rebellion, lineage, what it means to be an American, what it means to be an immigrant in America, what the Patriot Act means to library patrons, children’s literature, family, repressive religion, the role books can play in discovering and accepting your own self apart from the expectations and demands of others – these were all wonderfully expressed and integrated. I suspect I would’ve been even more impressed if I knew more about kidlit, which is referenced throughout the book in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. I got Huck Finn (most of it anyway), The Borrowers (obviously), and a couple of others, but I probably missed half a dozen at least. At its best, it really cooked.

Which isn’t to say I found it perfect. In fact, I have some major complaints.

The story follows Lucy, accidental children’s librarian, and 10-year-old Ian, library patron. Mostly everyone thinks Ian is gay, including his fundamentalist Christian mother, who sends him to a “gay rehab” group run by a megapastor. Ian’s very bright, and a little annoying the way very bright children can be. Lucy’s dad, a Russian immigrant, spent most of his life working in the Russian mob and telling stories of revolution. She, however, has drifted into this librarian position in a small town, and at age twenty-five has shown no signs of revolting against anything except her father.

Like a good Russian, I wanted to break into Pastor Bob’s house and poison him. Like a good American, I wanted to sue somebody. But like a good librarian, I just sat at my desk and waited.

Lucy finds Ian in the library early one morning; he’s run away from home and spent the night there. They hit the road together. Though throughout Lucy refers to herself as having kidnapped, stolen, or borrowed Ian, one of the masterful things Makkai does is maintain this uncertainty about just who is kidnapping whom, just who is in charge of the situation.

To be honest, she lost me a little with the beginning of the road trip. It’s just too preposterous, really. I was enjoying getting to know these people, the wonderfully constructed details of Lucy’s life (she lives above a theater with a dependably wacky cast, and she’s just started to date a man who’s written his first major orchestral symphony that to her sounds like the jingle from the old Mr. Clean commercials; all of this is somewhat determinedly kooky, but it worked well enough for me) and her sometimes exasperated interactions with Ian (as well as her opinions of the Patriot Act vis-à-vis the duty of librarians) when she makes this absurd decision.

Half a Russian was someone who carried inconsequential shoeboxes through the night, who played games with no strategy. Whose only revolution was to run.

My credulity was further strained by her lies to her father, and her calls to the library to explain her absence. Then there’s the question of just how absurdly incompetent the police in this town are that a ten-year-old can disappear and no one thinks to look for the librarian who disappeared at the same time. The Ferret-Glo seemed, like the kooky theater troupe, a little added in, like MSG. To be honest, I put the book down for a few days, disheartened.

And if I were going to toss Ian back, without his being ready, without his gaining some kind of magical strength to face the next eight years of his life, then what had all this been for? As accidental as it all had been, surely there must have been some kind of point.

I’m very glad, however, that I picked it up again. Once the focus shifted to her quality ingredients – Lucy and Ian, the themes of family and heritage, running away, rebellion, how to save another person – the MSG fell away as unnecessary, and I was again entranced. And by the time the climax on page 279 (in my edition; YMMV) fell out of the blue and brought everything together, I was in love.

The denouement does a very nice job cleaning up the loose ends strewn throughout, but there’s a scene that again had me in tears (fortunately, these were shed in the privacy of my living room). I could feel love radiating from those pages. And I think that’s why one of the most popular questions she gets is about a sequel.

“If I were copying a book, I would always put in some of my own words, or a secret message. About some really huge secret. Do you think they ever did that?”

I enjoyed her presentation and reading as well. She discussed all the usual things and answered the usual questions: she doesn’t consciously write for an audience, but is always aware of “the first 20 pages” which is what a publisher will typically ask to see; she’s found a lot of positive feedback from librarians and, surprisingly (or maybe not) from gay men in their 20s. A sequel is not on her agenda, but she might include a line or two in a future novel – and it will have to be significantly future, since Ian only turns 11 in this book – to give some view into Ian’s adult life. To me, there’s no question, given that denouement scene, that he’s going to be fine.

Her advice to readers: read the good stuff, both classics and modern. Her influences include Chekhov, Gogol, Lorrie Moore, and Alice Munro. She sees the process of writing a novel as similar to painting a mural: if she’s close enough to work on it, she can’t see the whole thing, so she has to step back to make sure what she’s working on fits. This means taking a few days every once in a while to read through the whole thing from beginning to end and see what needs adjusting. The characters also need to be scaled up from short story size to maintain them over the course of a novel.

…It was still an effort, in this age of cheap flights and e-mail and long-distance phone calls, to imagine what it mean for my father and his brother to pack up and leave, to understand that everyone they’d ever known in twenty years of life they’d never meet again, that they’d either die in the sweaters they were wearing or live in them for the next three months, that they, who had spoken such beautiful Russian, would become awkward, accented foreigners. That their children would belong to some other place.

A new novel, The Happensack, is underway, a haunted house story told in reverse, and a story collection, Music for Wartime, is also in the works.

And about the Patriot Act: I was curious, so I checked with my own library to see if they’re of the “burn the records” school of thought or the “Big Brother Knows Best” contingent. I vaguely remember someone back when the Patriot Act was first passed telling me the library wasn’t going to turn over records, but I never knew (and didn’t care beyond the curiosity stage) if she was really in-the-know or just acting like a big-shot. Turns out, she was right: I got this response from the library director:

Portland Public Library does not retain the checkout history of any patron’s use of library items. We keep statistical counts and only keep the detail we consider necessary to our business purposes — who is the current patron who has an item or who was the last patron to have it in case there is something about the item that requires follow-up. Our public computer use relates a patron to a specific computer until the following morning but not what sites have been visited.

Nice to know. I never should’ve doubted them.

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6 responses to “Rebecca Makkai: The Borrower (Viking, 2011)

  1. Wow-I read the book and liked it very much, but reading your review I feel like I didn’t read it at all! Well, that’s not true. It’s just that I don’t remember so much of it and can’t for the life of me figure out what the two words were that got you. I do remember thinking there needed to be a fair amount of willing suspension of disbelief and also that it was very well written. And, being a youth librarian, appreciating all references to the library and children’s literature. And you’d better believe I’d never tell anyone what you checked out!

    • I wish I’d recognized more of the kidlit. My family didn’t go in for books. We weren’t poor by any means, but my father never understood why anyone would waste money on books once you had, oh, five or six – “You have books, what do you need more for?”

    • Oopsie – left out most of my reply – Well, you read it a long time ago – a year and a half, right? No wonder you don’t remember the details – the two words were when Ian made a discovery about his “grandmother” buried in Vermont – “They lost.” It just seemed to me like the turning point of the whole book, where the road trip actually came to an end; it took a while for it to stop in the story but that felt like the point at which they both decided to stop the fantasy and deal with reality once again. Then the near-final scene where Lucy sends the magazine with the lists of books Ian should read and at what ages, that was just oozing love.

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