Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rebecca Makkai's "The Hundred-Year House"

Rebecca Makkai is a Chicago-based writer whose first novel, The Borrower, is 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 has been chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008), and appears regularly in journals like Harper's, Tin House, Ploughshares, and New England Review.

Here Makkai dreamcasts an adaptation of her new novel, The Hundred-Year House:
Would a reverse chronology translate well to film? I think it would, and my evidence isn’t Memento (because I refused to watch it lest it influence the book) but the infamous backwards episode of Seinfeld. I should emphasize that this was not an influence on The Hundred-Year House, except maybe in the sense that it gave me courage: yes, people are capable of thinking backwards. They might even enjoy it.

The novel starts in 1999, with the core characters who will be our emotional centers even as we move back to the years before their birth. For Doug, who is, if anyone, the book’s main character, I’d want Paul Rudd. He’s so good at winning our sympathy, at getting us to love characters who make poor decisions. A tightly wound Jennifer Garner can play his wife Zee. There’s another woman – Miriam – who moves into their house with them (the event that starts the whole chain of events) and here’s where I need some magic: Andie MacDowell, circa 1992, if she could act.

When we move back to 1955 in the next section, I’m going to keep my magical powers. I need Grace Kelly, somewhere around Rear Window vintage (for Grace, a miserable heiress), plus – for her horrible, violent husband George – the really good-looking guy from the Walker Evans photos that accompanied James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And let’s just assume he has the acting skills of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

When we go back to 1929, the place is an artists’ colony, and here, if not everywhere, I want a Robert Altman vibe. Chaotic and overlapping and bright, the filmic equivalent of literary modernism. There needs to be a bit of makeup trickery involved with at least one of these characters (have you seen the amazing movie version of Sleuth?), but lest I spoil the book I’ll zip my lips. For Gamby Devohr, the spoiled heir to the estate who threatens the colony with closure, I want a clean-shaven and restrained Zach Galifianakis. For the painter Zilla Silverman, I want Selma Blair. And for Edwin Parfitt – the poet whose subtle presence holds the story together – it has to be Tobey Maguire.

And then there’s the house itself, Laurelfield, which needs a gravity of its own. I don’t think it matters what mansion you pick – the key would be shooting it like a character, so it seems alive. I have no idea what that means, but a really smart cinematographer would, right?

Although the book moves straight backwards in time, I’m not convinced that a movie would have to. I think of Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play Arcadia, and the way its two casts of characters, separated by more than a century, inhabit the same sets, sometimes even at the same time. Film can do certain things that prose can’t, and if I were lucky enough to see a movie made, I’d want to see the medium flexing its muscles.
Learn more about the author and her work at Rebecca Makkai's website, Facebook page and Twitter perch.

My Book, The Movie: The Borrower.

The Page 69 Test: The Hundred-Year House.

--Marshal Zeringue