Music for Wartime
All short story collections are potentially susceptible to derailment due to inconsistency of subject, theme, style, and/or quality, and it is often difficult to anticipate what awaits when beginning one. This is particularly true of single-author anthologies, even those that do turn out to have a common thread running through their individual components. Comprised partially of stories focusing on Hungarians' experiences during and after World War II and partially of wholly unrelated tales, Rebecca Makkai's Music for Wartime occupies a strange middle ground between thematic unity and narrative diversity. The opening story and three additional "legends" interspersed throughout the collection are ephemeral folk tales set in rural interwar Europe (likely Hungary) that offer some context for those stories that explore the implications of the war, at the cost of making the others seem hopelessly out of place. Despite their individual and collective ability to establish a setting and evoke a particular mood, these efforts to establish a common thread and theme serve more to highlight the collection's incongruities than to unify its disparate pieces into a coherent whole.
Makkai's laudable, if imperfect, attempt to add a wrinkle to the typical anthology format betrays another of the collection's flaws: repetition that fails to construct collective meaning. Several characters seem to be recycled among the war-inspired stories without any overt connections beyond a general connection to the conflict, however far removed. Moreover, these stories are scattered among others featuring such wholly unconnected elements as a traveling circus, a reality television producer, and a time-traveling Johann Sebastian Bach. Without providing stronger connecting tissue or even ensuring their physical proximity, Makkai fails to capitalize on the war stories' potential power. Even though many individual stories shine, both within and outside of the purported theme, the collection lacks the unity it apparently craves. Powerful examinations of vivid characters and compelling philosophical questions are lost amidst the book's attempt at a unified vision that it fails to create. Music for Wartime is an eclectic collection that suffers from its hesitancy to effectively embrace either its shared themes or its more unique elements, resulting in a group of strong stories that buries its own potential.