I Have Some Questions for You questions our true crime obsession
Rebecca Makkai's latest novel and society's structural flaws
[Dear readers: This issue contains discussions of murder, assault, violence, and incarceration.]
In Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel, I Have Some Questions for You (Viking, 2023), Makkai delves into society’s true crime obsession, but to confront and break down the stereotypes and harmful consequences that the genre tends to play into. In doing so, the story addresses a number of critical topics—from the #MeToo movement to a corrupt criminal “justice” system to inequitable academia—with purpose, highlighting just how deep and interconnected our society’s structural issues are.
Bodie Kane, the protagonist of I Have Some Questions for You, is a podcaster, one half of a show that focuses on the real stories of famous women in Hollywood. She’s also a graduate of an east coast boarding school associated with its share of problems—including sexual assault, racism, and the murder of Thalia, Bodie’s old roommate and classmate. Returning to teach a podcasting course, Bodie can’t help but look at the school through both her teenage eyes and adult critical lens. “In the darkened classroom, the memory started to roil, to trouble me. We were so quick to spread lurid gossip, but so void of concern. Perhaps because we believed we were adults” (Makkai, 51).
And this is the part that Makkai leans into: When we’re young, especially depending on our privilege, we are encouraged to excuse. We might dismiss wrongdoings against us because we have been told they’re not wrong. And, especially for those who don’t have the privilege of ignorance, that might mean experiencing or seeing something happen and knowing it’s wrong, but not having the words to express why or how we feel about it. “We were, all of us, casting a sharp eye back on the men who’d hired us, mentored us, pulled us into coat closets,” Bodie says of the #MeToo movement (65). So when Bodie returns to Granby to teach a course, she’s not just critical of the school, but of herself, of the way she stayed—and still stays—silent in face of her own and others’ treatment, whether assault, racism, inequities…she’s by no means perfect. It’s here when Makkai starts to expand Bodie’s gaze across multiple societal issues.
“What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation? Girl as blank slate. Girl as reflection of your desires, unmarred by her own. Girl as sacrifice to the idea of girl. Girl as a series of childhood photographs, all marked with the aura of girl who will die young…” (7). Everyone from Bodie’s peers to wannabe influencers have sensationalized Thalia’s death, minimized it. They’ve focused on how it was done, who could have done it, why they did it. They don’t consider Thalia herself, nor the systemic factors at play, such as whose stories we pay attention to (the deaths of white, young women) and whose guilt and punishment we push for (largely men of color)—particularly punishment in forms of incarceration.
Our society’s obsession with true crime—whether consumed through podcasts, TV, or on social media—comes as no surprise. We are drawn to the sensational. But sensationalizing crime of any sort is both rooted in and furthers systemic inequities in our society. I Have Some Questions for You covers a lot, but it has to. Assault, #MeToo, incarceration, race and privilege, criminal injustice, and even academia—all of these conversations are intertwined. Makkai doesn’t attempt to give answers (which some may be disappointed by), but she does make an argument for questioning, for challenging what we think we know. And she doesn’t give into the true crime hype either, but leaves readers on a cliff, no neat bow tied around the piece. Instead, she poses a challenge: “Maybe I’m coming for you. Maybe I’ve been coming for you all along,” Bodie thinks near the end of the novel, addressing an old teacher (429). We have to push for a better justice system, because unless there is true, deep seated change, abuse, harassment…it’s going to keep happening. The “you” might be different, but there will always be a “you.”
What does “justice” even look like?
“If we abolish the police, what’s the alternative?… Just because I did not know the answer didn’t mean that one did not exist.” —Derecka Purnell, Becoming Abolitionists
In I Have Some Questions for You, Makkai challenges over and over again whether “justice” is being found for Thalia. And when Omar is incarcerated, she highlights numerous times the unethical and purely harmful treatment he faces at the hands of police, the media, and the judge. Our society’s idea of justice, Makkai makes clear, is not just.
But what is justice? Derecka Purnell’s quote is relevant for more than just police abolition; it’s the truth for incarceration, the death penalty, forms of punitive and corporal punishment, etc. Discussions about abolishing any of these institutions or systematic penalties often shock many because they can’t imagine what the world would look like without them. However that doesn’t mean that solutions aren’t out there, and in the meantime, we have to work to root out white supremacy and its manifestation as assault, racism, transphobia, and other forms of violence.
Here are some resources to get started:
As Makkai notes in the book, society (and the media) primarily pays attention to violence against white women. Murder is the third-leading cause of death against Indigenous women in the U.S., 2.8x higher than that of white women. Learn more about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Two-Spirits.
Support organizations such as the NoName Book Club and their program to send books to incarcerated individuals.
Learn more about ways to support victims of domestic violence and intimate partner violence.
California colleges are experimenting with restorative justice. Read more.
What’s as perfect as a girl stopped dead, midformation?
—I Have Some Questions for You, p7
Others’ thoughts on IHSQFY
“The narrative lives in that gray space and in that nuance, a useful corrective for our society’s need for easy answers and caricatured culprits.” —@ktlee.writes
“I wanted Makkai to weave a riveting story with a “Gotcha!” at the end, implicating true crime peddlers & consumers alike. This was not that.”
“Can true crime be ethical? [Makkai’s] patient, evocative character work prevents Omar and Thalia from becoming types…The result is not a book that leers at a discrete and unfathomable act of violence but one that investigates, as Britt puts it, ‘two stolen lives: those of Thalia Keith and Omar Evans.’” —Katy Waldman, The New Yorker
If you liked IHSQFY, read…
Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
As always, thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share with friends and/or subscribe if you have not yet already. We’ll be back in just a few weeks with our end-of-month issue to break down current topics in the publishing world.
Olivia and Fiona