Wrangles over the Rust Belt

Benjamin Markovits’s novel You Don’t Have to Live Like This shows how a scheme to reclaim decayed Detroit unravels in kidnappings and vigilantism

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

You Don’t Have to Live Like This Benjamin Markovits

Faber, pp.392, £14.99, ISBN: 9780571313402

In the opening sentence of this subtle and finely poised novel, the narrator, Greg Marnier, known as ‘Marny’, admits that he ‘was never much good at telling stories’. By the end he is accused of having a ‘confessional streak, but no real desire to explain yourself’, while realising that ‘everything people do, everything they say, is just a clumsy form of self-defence’.

He is a singularly obtuse and convincing character — a thirtysomething lecturer with no sign of tenure. Then a chance encounter with a rich college friend leads him to re-locate to Detroit. This friend, Robert James, is buying derelict and abandoned properties, hoping to create a ‘Groupon model for gentrification’, turning online communities into real communities. The young professionals moving to Detroit see themselves as postmodern pioneers in a place where ‘instead of grass, the gardens grew mattresses, tyres and broken bricks’. Their neighbourhood will be Walden with Wi-Fi. Some of the older residents — predominantly black — resist the influx, referring to them as ‘colonisers’. Eventually, suspicion and resentment become more open conflict, as the rueful tone of the beginning leads the reader to expect.

You Don’t Have to Live Like This is a novel that takes race seriously. The young liberals moving into ‘Jamestown’ are both unconsciously racist and unintentionally racist in their hypersensitivity about race. The title of the book comes from a scene where Obama visits the urban village of regeneration, and is frostily ironic. Benjamin Markovits catches the inflections of the President’s rhetoric precisely, and there is a wince-making passage where Marny claims to his new, black girlfriend that he — as a mixed race French Canadian and American — is more akin to the President than she is, despite him going to Yale and Obama to Harvard. Markovits is shrewdly observant. The moral vacuity reaches a peak in a scene where a young thief is knocked down by a car, and the victim of the theft worries whether his iPhone is cracked before checking on the condition of the thief.

Detroit has been the decaying backdrop of many of Elmore Leonard’s novels, and more recently Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes thrived on and satirised the ruin-porn and art-hipster scene there. Like Philip Levine’s poetry collection A Walk with Tom Jefferson, Markovits uses Detroit as a rebuke to certain forms of American idealism, and does so with nuance. Marny is an unwitting archetype for his generation, a childish man who does not understand his own desires and motivations, who wants connection but cannot articulate why. One never feels the novelist pressing down on the moral scales here. When the embryonic society unravels into beatings, kidnappings and vigilantism, the reader will be hard pressed to state definitively which characters are in the right and which in the wrong, who gets justice and who gets what they deserve. Characters are introduced as if they were satirical relief, but are gradually deepened and made complex, leaving the reader complicit in a degree of judgemental behaviour.

Like All Involved by Ryan Gattis, You Don’t Have to Live Like This asks extremely awkward questions about class and race in contemporary America, and provides precisely zero answers.

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