Benjamin Markovits’s Obama Novel

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Photo: Harper Collins

Novelists take their time responding to history, and we’re now starting to see what they’ll make of America under Obama. You Don’t Have to Live Like This, Benjamin Markovits’s seventh book, captures a peculiar creature of this time: the young liberal entrepreneur who wants to create a model for urban renewal and make a buck or two doing it. His name is Robert James, and his plan is to buy up five square miles of crumbling houses and empty lots in Detroit and jump-start the area’s gentrification by attracting settlers through an online campaign. Before things take their turn toward the violent and distinctly non-post-racial, Obama himself makes an appearance, delivering a speech with the line that gives the novel its title and giving the narrator a bloody nose with a misplaced elbow in a pickup basketball game.

The narrator is Greg Marnier, and it’s his oddity that saves You Don’t Have to Live Like This from becoming a color-by-numbers dramatization of current events. Marny, as everyone but his family calls him, is a “periphery guy,” not a bad thing for a narrator to be, and not being at the center of things will allow him fringe access to more than one world. He’s an Ivy League loser, a Yale graduate for whom things didn’t pan out. He walks away from a lectureship at a provincial university in Wales with a lackluster academic résumé that will get him nowhere in the USA. He moves home to Louisiana and lives for a time with his parents in Baton Rouge, then for a few months in New Orleans; campaigns for Hillary Clinton, then Obama; and at last decides to take up Robert’s invitation to come work for him in Detroit. Robert is of the sort who’s always trying to enlist his college friends in his money-making ventures, as if Yale could last forever. Besides Marny, the friends include an ex-girlfriend, Beatrice, who turns out to be writing a novel of her own about the colonization of Detroit, and Walter, who brings with him a young woman whom he first seduced at the cost of his job when she was his 16-year-old student at Dalton. There’s also a shady professor who seems to be the link to Robert’s less-savory business connections.

“When I was younger I was never much good at telling stories” is the novel’s first line, and some suspense is generated in the novel’s first half by the question of whose story Marny is telling. Is it the story of the gentrifiers, or those they would displace? Or a third, thornier narrative, about people drawn across lines?

Marny’s romantic past is a blank, and “sexual loneliness,” a phrase he uses a few times, seems to be his standard mode. In Detroit, this isn’t the case. He gets entangled first with Astrid, a German artist documenting her life in videos and photographs Marny doesn’t have much respect for. These include a tape of the two of them in bed, a sex tape that would serve as a sort of Chekhovian gun on the wall if Marny didn’t tell us upfront that it would do the online rounds. Whether the shotgun under his bed or the pistol he keeps in his drawer will go off is another question.

Markovits is an American, a Yale graduate himself who spent a year playing professional basketball in Germany — fictionalized in Playing Days, published in 2010 in the U.K. and due out next year in the U.S. But he lives in London, holds two passports, and was named to Granta’s “Best of the Young British Novelists” in 2012. His six previous books include a trilogy of historical novels observing Byron from various points of view. The past is a blank canvas for a historical novelist, and Detroit is something like that for Markovits the expatriate. He’s told an interviewer that he spent a week in the city with a journalist friend, and that was enough for him to go on. The novel doesn’t dazzle with its sense of local authenticity, and that’s part of the point. There’s something illegitimate about the gentrifying contingent’s claim on the fictional patch of Detroit that comes to be called “New Jamestown,” and they won’t be redeemed by their (not entirely) good intentions.

Markovits makes it easy to see the traces of his research. Marny spends a lot of time reading the Detroit Free Press and other local media, and you can imagine the novelist doing the same. One of Marny’s jobs for Robert is to compile a newsletter including profiles of neighborhood residents, and some of the stories he tells of characters who don’t much figure in the rest of the action clog the middle of the novel with what feels like journalism. Markovits is a realist who plays it straight, and his gift is for the setpiece. There are two brilliantly drawn party scenes — one in which a drunk Marny flirts with one woman, kisses another, and goes chastely to bed with a third; and one in which he suffers the blow from the president’s elbow — that demonstrate the density of the fictional world he’s conjured and his deftness in stage-managing it. Markovits’s prose is clean and restrained, and his ear for the way his characters speak is rarely off. This extends from Obama’s folks, this, folks, that speech at the fund-raiser, to Marny’s black neighbor (and conceptual artist) Nolan Smith’s confrontational bluntness, to the futurist pronouncements of Nathan Zwecker, the city’s priestlike e-commerce tycoon:

“We’re starting to get DNA information about the way people age, about their sex drives, that should form the basis of any serious decision about compatibility. I know from my own experience that I’m attracted to pale-skinned, black-haired women, Irish types. I also know that pale skin tends to suffer damage over time, that pale-skinned women who don’t take enormous care of their appearance turn either reddish or look bleached-out, and that neither of these qualities is attractive to me, that pale skin and blue eyes is a recipe for skin cancer, etc. All of this is a matter of medical record, you can look at the photographs if you want to. So I adjust my attitudes towards attraction. I know about myself that I have a moderate sex drive, probably in the bottom half of the range, somewhere in the second quartile. And we’re beginning to connect the sex drive to genetics and make predictions over time about, let’s say, the expected sex drive of a twenty-two-year-old woman when she reaches her fifties.”

Most of the comedy in this book sneaks in, as it does here, between quotation marks. Marny isn’t one to make jokes himself, and he has his own problems of attraction. After Astrid fades out of his life, he pursues Gloria Lambert, a black Detroit native who teaches art at a city high-school, where he starts working, too. “I felt like I was falling in love,” he says, “but maybe not just with her, with something else, another world, but maybe that’s always what falling in love is like.” Maybe, but in this case it also has an allegorical function, drawing Marny away from college friends and into the world of “a real Detroiter,” as he describes Gloria at one point. After their relationship begins, the novel hurtles into the news cycle. A series of events (a theft, a car accident, assaults, a kidnapping, a commodities scam) bring the racial tensions exacerbated by gentrification to the fore. Marny finds himself having to take sides while also having to serve as an ambassador between black and white opponents, and under pressure, his insufficiency as a storyteller gets the better of him and his life starts to unwind.

You Don’t Have to Live Like This is very much a novel of Obama’s first term, when the idea of a post-racial America still had some dreamlike currency, written early in his second, when racial conflict became one of the central stories of his presidency. Its timeline ends just before the killing of Trayvon Martin. The fictional events that overtake Marny’s life and plunge Detroit into turmoil have more ambiguous valences than the shootings of Martin and Michael Brown, the deaths of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, or the massacre in Charleston. But they’re not so ambiguous that the reader doesn’t see where the injustice lies, and isn’t surprised by the flames that come with it.