[Transcribed discussion of “The Briefcase,” by Rebecca Makkai, published in The New England Review.
This story takes place in an unnamed country in an unnamed time. The country has just had a revolution and the new government has rounded up the intellectuals. One man, a chef before the chaos, is on a chain gang of 200 prisoners. He escapes, and the soldiers decide to pick up the next free man they see, and substitute him for the chef. The free man they see, and nab, is a physics professor. The former chef—who sticks around to watch the professor’s arrest—decides to take on the identity of the professor. To do so, he uses the professor’s briefcase, which was left behind, and which is filled with the man’s papers and letters.]
Sophia: I liked how there were so many things to think about, how it was kind of mysterious, and I liked thinking about a revolution. I like learning about that kind of stuff in history class. And I liked the writing. She’s a good writer.
Will: It’s cool how nothing’s named, how this all could pretty much take place anywhere.
Sophia: Right, just like in the story, in a lot of revolutions they arrest the artists and intellectuals first.
Javier: And that’s the thing, this could be set during any revolution, in the future or in the past, because they’re always like this. And I like the ending of this story because it can be filled in, we don’t know what happens. What do you all think of how the names are marked out?
[In the story, all the names are given in this format: T——.]
Sophia: Maybe it’s kind of like censorship, sort of mirroring what’s happening in the story, you know?
Joseph: I like the whole idea of trying to figure out who the professor is, and who the chef was, or who anyone is, since their names are blacked out. It’s interesting to withhold that information. And the censorship of names helps put us in his shoes, to see what it’s like not to really know anything about anyone, not even names of his supposed friends.
[The “professor”—formerly the chef—tries to understand what it means for the earth to revolve around the sun. In the professor’s notebooks he finds that the professor’s been teaching a new theory: that the sun and stars revolve around the earth. The chef takes a lover in the city and tells her he’s a physics professor. He tries to convince her that the earth revolves around the sun.]
Will: One of my favorite scenes is where he’s talking to his lover about how the sun revolves around the earth.
Yael: I think she put that whole story line in there—about whether the earth revolves around the sun or not—because that discovery in science, about the way the earth and sun relate to each other, that was kind of a revolution in and of itself at its time.
Bora: It’s interesting here because in this case the professor who’s not really a professor is claiming something about science that we wouldn’t think is true. He’s rejecting a pretty widely held belief, the idea that the earth goes around the sun. So that’s kind of revolutionary I think the author’s making a point about thinking differently in a time when it’s probably not so cool to think differently.
Will: I think a lot of times the professor’s just struggling to believe. He’s struggling to believe he’s the professor, and he’s struggling to believe that where he is is the center of the universe. I think it’s kind of his own selfishness actually.
Bora: I didn’t see it as selfishness, but I did feel like the character was off—kind of odd, you know?—in an interesting way. Like when he tried to assume the role of the professor, I think he was off and I appreciated that. Made him intriguing.
Will: But isn’t it selfish to ask for money from a bunch of people who aren’t really his friends? I mean he’s playing with them.
[The former chef, acting in his new identity as professor, solicits money from the professor’s friends and colleagues to keep himself propped up financially while living in a distant city. He finds the addresses for these people in the briefcase that once belonged to the real professor.]
Bora: But I didn’t find that selfish. I think in his mind he thought he was the professor and he felt that that was something the professor would do.
Javier: You know, I think it was kind of a game for this guy. I like that, because it’s like he’s almost bored, he wants something beyond the life he already has. Switching identities with the arrested professor gets him that. That makes sense to me. He’s a product of the revolution. There is no moral compass and he can do anything he wants, so why not take on this new identity?
Sophia: But he wouldn’t be so desperate if he wasn’t in such a dire situation, if he wasn’t surrounded by a society that’s all messed up from revolution.
Will: It seems like he wasn’t that happy before the revolution anyway. He was a good student but his Mom made him drop out, and then he had to become a chef. He seemed to like being knowledgeable and being a good student, or at least being thought of that way. And I think that fits into why he thinks he can be the professor. It was an improvement for him. What’s weird is that he becomes an intellectual and the government was killing intellectuals. Why would he do that? Why would he make himself more of a target?
Joseph: It’s almost like he wanted excitement in his life, glory or something. I think he was almost jealous when he was talking about those people who were smoking in the coffee shop, those intellectuals. He maybe thought it would be exciting if the authorities might be coming for him, that he’d be one of the intellectuals.
Javier: It made him feel important. I don’t think, if there were no revolution, that he would have done anything about it, but now he has this opportunity for a better, happier life.
Joseph: That makes him pretty confusing as a character. He’s sympathetic in some ways but pathetic in other ways. Pathetic that he has to steal someone’s identity. It’s like he’s okay with making it himself, with surviving, even when his life comes totally at the expense of someone else’s.