NEA Literature Fellowships

Rebecca Makkai

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(2014 - Prose)

Excerpt from "The Briefcase"

He thought how strange that a political prisoner, marched through town in a line, chained to the man behind and chained to the man ahead, should take comfort in the fact that all this had happened before. He thought of other chains of men on other islands of the Earth, and he thought how since there have been men there have been prisoners. He thought of mankind as a line of miserable monkeys chained at the wrist, dragging each other back into the ground.

In the early morning of December 1st the sun was finally warming them all, enough that they could walk faster. With his left hand, he adjusted the loop of steel that cuffed his right hand to the line of doomed men. His hand was starved, his wrist was thin, his body was cold: the cuff slipped off. In one beat of the heart he looked back to the man behind him and forward to the man limping ahead, and knew that neither saw his naked, red wrist; each saw only his own mother weeping in a kitchen, his own love on a bed in white sheets and sunlight. 

He walked in step with them to the end of the block.

Before the war this man had been a chef, and his one crime was feeding the people who sat at his tables in small clouds of smoke and talked politics. He served them the wine that fueled their underground newspaper, their aborted revolution. And after the night his restaurant disappeared in fire, he had run and hidden and gone without food—he who had roasted ducks until the meat jumped from the bone, he who had evaporated three bottles of wine into one pot of cream soup, he who had peeled the skin from small pumpkins with a twist of his hand.

And here was his hand, twisted free of the chain, and here he was running and crawling, until he was through a doorway. It was a building of empty classrooms—part of the university he had never attended. He watched from the bottom corner of a second-story window as the young soldiers stopped the line, counted 199 men, shouted to each other, shouted at the men in the panicked voices of children who barely filled the shoulders of their uniforms. One soldier, a bigger one, a louder one, stopped a man walking by. A man in a suit, with a briefcase, a beard—some sort of professor. The soldiers stripped him of his coat, his shirt, his leather case, cuffed him to the chain. They marched again. And as soon as they were past—no, not that soon; many minutes later, when he had the stomach—the chef ran down to the street and collected the man’s briefcase, coat and shirt.

In the alley, the chef sat against a wall and buttoned the professor’s shirt over his own ribs. When he opened the briefcase, papers flew out, a thousand doves flailing against the walls of the alley. The chef ran after them all, stopped them with his feet and arms, herded them back into the case. Pages of numbers, of arrows and notes and hand-drawn star maps. Here were business cards: a professor of physics. Envelopes showed his name and address—information that might have been useful in some other lifetime, one where the chef could ring the bell of this man’s house and explain to his wife about empty chains, empty wrists, empty classrooms. Here were graded papers, a fall syllabus, the typed draft of an exam. The question at the end, a good one: “Using modern astronomical data, construct, to the best of your ability, a proof that the sun actually revolves around the Earth.”

The chef knew nothing of physics. He understood chemistry only insofar as it related to the baking time of bread at various elevations or the evaporation rate of alcohol. His knowledge of biology was limited to the deboning of chickens and the behavior of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, common bread yeast. And what did he know at all of moving bodies and gravity? He knew this: he had moved from his line of men, creating a vacuum—one that had sucked the good professor in to fill the void.

The chef sat on his bed in the widow K--------’s basement and felt, in the cool leather of the briefcase, a second vacuum: here was a vacated life. Here were salary receipts, travel records, train tickets, a small address book. And these belonged to a man whose name was not blackened like his own, a man whose life was not hunted. If he wanted to live through the next year, the chef would have to learn this life and fill it—and oddly, this felt not like a robbery but an apology, a way to put the world back in balance. The professor would not die, because he himself would become the professor, and he would live.

Surely he could not teach at the university; surely he could not slip into the man’s bed unnoticed. But what was in this leather case, it seemed, had been left for him to use. These addresses of friends; this card of identification; this riddle about the inversion of the universe.

Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer whose second novel, The Hundred-Year House, will be available in summer 2014 from Viking/Penguin. Her first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, an O Magazine selection, and one of Chicago Magazine's choices for best fiction of 2011. Her short fiction was chosen for The Best American Short Stories in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011, and has been featured in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, New Stories from the Midwest, Best New Fantasy, and several college literature textbooks. Her new stories appear regularly in publications such as Harper’s, Tin House, Ploughshares, New England Review, and Ecotone, and on public radio’s This American Life and Selected Shorts. Rebecca teaches StoryStudio Chicago's "Novel in a Year" workshop, and instructs as well at Lake Forest College and in Sierra Nevada College's MFA program.

Photo by Philippe Matsas for Opale

Author's Statement

An award like this is really two awards: the money part and the vote of confidence part. The money is helpful in many quiet, pedestrian ways. I can afford not to teach as much this term, I can afford more childcare, I can even travel a bit for research. (I’m working on a project about my grandparents’ tumultuous lives in Hungary in the 1930s, and I’m trying to get over there before the last people who remember them have died.) A previous NEA Fellow told me that “It’s not a life-changing amount of money, but it’s definitely a year-changing amount of money.” I’d add that if a year means a book I wouldn’t otherwise have written, then the fellowship will have changed my life.

But don’t underestimate the vote of confidence part! Few people are in literary fiction for their egos (You know the definition of literary fiction, right? It’s printed on paper made from that tree that fell in the woods when no one was around…) but that doesn’t mean we do our best work in a vacuum. To be judged worthy, to be acknowledged publicly: It’s sustaining in a different way than money could ever be.

Every few years, some thick-eyebrowed political candidate questions the necessity of the NEA, and we shout our invectives at the TV – things about culture and priority – and every year (miraculously! vitally!) the NEA survives to keep more artists afloat, to keep our arts vibrant, to reward work that might be essential but not wildly commercial.

When I was first allowed to announced the Fellowship, I told my friends I felt like Big Bird – and I still do: wide-eyed, joyful, and knowing that things wouldn’t be the same for me without the support of a generous government and the people who fight for it to fund our arts.

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Rebecca Makkai

2014 NEA Literature Fellow

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From beautifully crafted short fiction to page-turning gothic novels, Rebecca Makkai puts art at the heart of her work.

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