August 2014

Kate Loftus-O'Brien

fiction

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

At the very end of Rebecca Makkai's second novel, The Hundred-Year House, a wealthy aristocrat finds the perfect plot of land on which to build his estate. It's 1900 and Augustus Devohr feels drawn to these acres, not because this is a place he's seen before, but because it's a place "he's always been meant to see." "What is the opposite of memory?" he wonders, "what is the inverse of an echo?" Augustus Devohr is a victim of fate.

The novel begins in 1999 and moves backwards through the history of Laurelfield, a large stately home belonging to the Devohrs. The house has morphed over the years from family residence to beloved arts colony and back again. The first and longest section of the novel deals with Laurelfield's most contemporary permutation.

Zee, a Marxist literary scholar, has reluctantly moved into the coach house at her mother Gracie's suggestion. Her husband, Doug, is attempting to write a monograph on a little known poet named Edwin Parfitt, who happened to stay at the house during its years as an arts colony. Low on cash and seeing this as an opportunity for Doug to finish the book, the couple put up with Gracie's ridiculous manner (all snobbery and gin-and-tonics, like a Midwestern Lucille Bluth) and Zee's stepdad, Bruce, because they hope the situation will be temporary.

The trouble is Doug's severely lacking in motivation and has taken up a ghostwriting job on a Baby-Sitters Club-style series for middle-graders. Each day, Zee goes to work thinking he's typing his way toward academic employment when actually, he's detailing a preteen's hatred of dark chocolate and wondering if twelve-year-old girls carry purses. To get back on track with the monograph, Doug's convinced he needs to see the old files from the artist's colony that Gracie keeps locked in the attic. But his request is met with fearsome guardedness from his mother-in-law, raising questions about what she has to hide.

When Bruce's son, Chad, and his artist wife, Miriam, move into the coach house as well, Doug finds an unlikely partner-in-sleuthing in the upbeat Texan, who reworks found objects into mosaics. As the pair scheme their way into the locked upper rooms of Laurelfield, they begin to unravel some of the mystery that shrouds the great house.

The novel is brilliantly plotted, with the first section raising so many questions that everything becomes a potential clue. Reading becomes deciphering. Was that painting important? Should I Google the Proteus myth? Surely that mad-woman-in-the-attic reference was significant, right?

As Makkai goes backward through the history of the house, she keeps us on a steady drip of puzzle pieces. The inverse-echo structure has readers chasing reverberations right back to their original source, so a line is sketched between a happy outcome for a character in 1999 and the actions of someone at Laurelfield in 1920. Sometimes that means rooting for something awful to happen, knowing that it has to for the very existence of someone in the previous section would be impossible. The characters in the novel are also dimly aware of this; they feel fate tugging them forward at Laurelfield, as if on a train they don't remember boarding.

At the colony, a young artist develops a roll of film and finds that she can't shake the feeling that the photographs "have existed all along, have been waiting in their canister for a thousand years, and that the people in them have lived their whole lives just to end up in these exact positions, just to hit their marks like dancers." It's a scary thought and Makkai explores both the macabre and the magical aspects of fate. In The Hundred-Year House, we get the tragedy and the rom-com.

At the end of the 1999 section, two characters kiss for the first time and feel as though they've been "waiting a century" for the moment. Readers don't really appreciate it yet, but in a sense, they have. In a novel where we know the ending at the beginning, what's interesting in this story is the middle. How and why did these things come to pass, what sacrifices and metamorphoses were necessary?

Laurelfield itself sits firmly within the gothic tradition; there's something alchemical bubbling underneath the bricks. It's desperate for change. As a family home, the atmosphere at the mansion was never happy. Violet, Augustus's wife and one of the house's first inhabitants, supposedly killed herself in the attic. In the 1950s, Grace Devohr, newly married to an abusive husband, finds herself marooned there without a friend to turn to. In the 1920s, however, the house is alive and bubbling with artistic activity and the palpable tension of feelings between friends growing stronger.

In 1999, the house seems to be aching for this earlier existence. Windows smash spontaneously, as if attempting to scare the present occupiers out. The characters that do decide to stay at Laurelfield are the ones who find in its walls new companionship and inspiration. There's something slightly irritating about this. Throughout the novel, Makkai paints artists as infallible creators, improving the world with their beautiful objects, dances, and poems. In fact, all of these imaginary artists seem to create work in a vacuum, and it's hard to see the value of much of what's created at Laurelfield -- except that everyone seems to have a good time creating it (and perhaps that is enough). The section focused on the colony is especially saccharine in this respect, like an extended version of the scene in Only Lovers Left Alive in which Tilda Swinton strokes the pages of her favorite novels in some kind of ridiculous high-culture ecstasy. That's not to say it's not enjoyable -- it is -- but you have been warned.

Aside from that niggle, this novel is incredibly satisfying. Not in any great emotional way, but in a straightforward, entertaining one. It wears the keys to its own interpretation so openly. In Zee's class on haunted houses, for instance, a student asks if it might be possible to be haunted by the future. Miriam makes mosaics of famous fictional houses; she makes Thornfield and Manderley of broken glass and smashed vases. I'm going to give you some answers, Makkai is saying, but you'll have to mortar them together yourself. There's a simple pleasure to the rhythm of the prose and the way the author easily inhabits each of her characters. Ultimately though, the book made me curious, then satisfied that curiosity in carefully scheduled doses, leaving some crucial imaginative space to input my own version of events. Though that's no easy feat, it is all that the book managed, as it didn't reach me on any other levels. The Hundred-Year House is easy and enjoyable, a book for beach read listicles, with all the good, and the less-so connotations that might come with that.

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai
Viking
ISBN: 978-0525426684
352 pages