I started seeing Rebecca Makkai’s short stories a few years ago. They’d pop up in some of the finer literary journals (including our own Michigan Quarterly Review) and then get reprinted with amazing regularity in the annual “best of” anthologies. Makkai’s stories, however, did not fade into the general picture of “fine new writing.” She was able to mix a sense of the weight of history with an understanding of music and the fine arts, a sense of personal urgency, and characters and plots that move easily through time and place. Her small gems of passion and intelligence all bear the mark of her particular, quirky vision. With a couple of novels early in this decade she added wit and a polished command of plot to her bag of tricks.

Now her collection of short stories, Music for Wartime, establishes her as a new master of this demanding genre. The stories carry the lingering weight of the Holocaust and World War II and land on everything from the AIDS-ravaged world of 1980s New York to the demands of mastering an instrument for the classical repertoire.

They turn on small moments that at first appear to be magical intrusions into reality but always seem to end up with logical explanations. Unlike many of her fashionable contemporaries, Makkai doesn’t accept mystery as a solution. For instance, “Suspension: April 20, 1984” begins like this:

The most alarming photograph in my possession: my sixth birthday, eight children gathered at a picnic table, staring at a bomb. In the background, my grandfather’s hands rest on his bald head; my father stares at the sky. Above and behind them, unnoticed by anyone but the camera, my sister is flying.

We discover the substance of the bomb and the reason for the flying child soon enough, but those images remain, vivid and unforgettable as Makkai fills in the narrative blanks. She takes something most of us have experienced–the oddly disjunctive experience we have when we look at an old photo where some earlier version of ourselves acts a role we can barely remember–and transforms it into a moment where all the weight of the past and the future meet. Several generations of guilt, fear, and love are trapped within the borders of the Polaroid.

Another story begins: “The story goes that Chapman, leaving a meeting in Seattle–this was the seventies, he was still designing posters–looked up toward a noise in the sky and got hit in the face with a fish.” Very shortly after this wonderful sentence, Makkai explains the miraculous fish, and she paints a very funny scene of Chapman running through the city trying to save it. In only a few pages, we become devastated by Chapman’s story, by his move into the art world, his experience nursing his lover through AIDS, and his final sense of abandonment.

Makkai is at Literati Bookstore on June 13 (see Events).