Benjamin Markovits follows Charles Dickens and Tom Wolfe in creating a vividly real urban backdrop against which a fine, provocative story can be toldby Elizabeth Day / June 18, 2015 / Leave a comment
You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits (£14.99, Faber & Faber)
Benjamin Markovits has pulled off the trick of writing a city novel in which the city itself does not initially exist. You Don’t Have to Live Like This opens with his disaffected protagonist Greg Marnier searching for greater meaning after 10 years in middle-ranking academia. At a college reunion, Marnier is offered a utopian vision by a dotcom millionaire, who plans to buy up abandoned neighbourhoods in Detroit and build a new city from the ruins of American industrial decline. Marnier signs up to the project, leaving behind his baffled parents in Baton Rouge.
It is a bold and brilliant take on a long-established genre. Before the industrial revolution, the city did not exist as a meaningful setting for fiction. Authors were more concerned with the travails of a flawed hero who was buffeted by the narrative than with an acute sense of place. Only with the rise of Romanticism towards the end of the 18th century did attention begin to be paid to the effect of an urban milieu on the individual.
This coincided with the rapid expansion of manufacturing and a huge growth in the size of cities in Britain. Manchester experienced a six-fold increase in its population between 1771 and 1831. By the time Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life in 1848, the city was regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world, despite the urban poverty among the working class.
But Gaskell’s Manchester setting was a backdrop rather than a fully realised place. It was Charles Dickens who brought the idea of the “city novel” to fuller fruition. In Bleak House, which began appearing in serial form in 1852, London emerges as a densely populated, smoggy place where desperate vagrants co-exist with worthless lawyers. The city locations add to our understanding of the characters who inhabit them. It is no coincidence that the High Court of Chancery is shrouded in thick fog, reflecting Dickens’s critique of “the groping and floundering condition” of Victorian legal practice.
At the same time, the poet Charles Baudelaire explored the idea of the “flâneur”—the gentleman stroller who observed Paris…