Thursday, 20 April 2017

you don’t have to live like this [benjamin markovits]

Markovits addictive novel is set in Detroit. The narrative describes how a failed historian, Marny, who has spent ten years teaching US history in Aberystwyth, returns to his homeland and becomes involved in a scheme to revitalise the dying barrios of the city. The project is funded by a fellow Yale alumni, Robert James, who made a lot of money in business very young and sees the scheme as a way of both giving something back and turning a profit. Marny is a lost soul, who responds to the challenge of trying to create and develop a new community, seeing in the project echoes of the Founding Fathers themselves. However, just at the Founding Fathers of the original Jamestown were constructing their dream on someone else’s soil, so the mixed bunch who colonise the deserted streets of Detroit are also stepping in the footsteps of a community which might have thinned out, but still has presence. Specifically, the black community. This is perhaps the bravest and the most committed book since Another Country in its approach to the issue of race in the USA. Markovits goes where angels fear to tread, straight to the heart of a divide which if anything seems (from the outside) to have become more exacerbated in the Obama years, rather than less so.

Obama makes a fleeting and telling appearance in the book. Just like Marny, Obama attempts to straddle the different American communities that exist, constantly on the verge of some kind of unofficial segregation. The settlers’ Utopianism always teeters on the brink of tumbling into the racial divide. Marny has black friends and white friends. He goes out with a black woman. He wants to believe in the possibility of a colour-blind society, but no-one else seems interested in sharing that vision. In the process, the author offers a harsh critique of the state of the North American dream, which ends in fire, or pegged behind steel walls, with shades of Saunders’ dystopia. 

There’s an urgency to Markovits’ text. In contrast to Saunders, it’s written in the most direct, un-obfuscated language possible. He’s capturing a moment and telling a story at the same time. It’s as though the importance of the story demands a style that excises any frills. The low-key stylistic approach dissimulates: the more banal and everyday the language, the more the reader begins to suspect that it hides a terrible, secret truth. There are similarities, in a way, with Abani’s novel, Graceland. The writers are both examining the limits of the dream of communal living in the 21st century. The privileged North American experiment fares no better than the African slum experiment. 

However, it could be said that Markovits’ narrator is also following in the neo-realistic tradition of Bellow, Updike and Roth. Narratives constructed around overly intelligent if slightly vapid figures whose personal calvaries reflect the psychological ailments of their country. (Franzen too probably, though I’ve never read him). Where Markovits’ prose distinguishes itself from this tradition is that it is underpinned by the author’s unashamedly political commentary. This is a story about the limits of community in America, and what creates those limits. Marny is an anguished observer, but his personal agonies are kept firmly backgrounded, ensuring the wider narrative maintains its prominence. This plainness of the book also feels like boldness. The screen on the TV, showing the revolution that will not be televised, is ripped off. So that all you can see are the gubbins. The wires and the sockets and the air compressors of a machine that looked like it was capable of producing miracles, but in the end never came close to realising its promises. 

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