Imagining Detroit

Benjamin Markovits follows Charles Dickens and Tom Wolfe in creating a vividly real urban backdrop against which a fine, provocative story can be told
June 17, 2015
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 like an anthropologist. Modernist writers from the 1920s such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf placed this notion at the heart of two of their most famous works—Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway.

But if Dickens, Joyce and Woolf gave birth to the idea, the city novel grew into itself over the second half of the 20th century. When Jay McInerney published Bright Lights, Big City in 1984, New York was in a state of flux. Previously, young, upwardly mobile white people like McInerney’s narrator had been abandoning the city for the suburbs in which the protagonists of John Updike, John Cheever and Richard Yates lived. But in Bright Lights, Big City, an adventurous yuppie is lured back to the city by cheap houses in formerly working-class neighbourhoods. McInerney illuminates the tension between the flashy, college-educated elite and the people they are replacing. The relentless pace of New York gives this slim novel a brutal, exhausting power.

Three years later, Tom Wolfe explored similar territory in The Bonfire of the Vanities, a novel in which the author skewers a cross-section of New York society—from Wall Street millionaires to street politicians. Wolfe’s New York is declining into racial conflict, crime and greed. It is a place of alienation, not of connection—just as it is in Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), which transposes the flâneur to modern times. Julius is a young Nigerian graduate who has recently broken up with his girlfriend and who spends his time dreamily walking around Manhattan contemplating the immigrant experience. Here New York is held at a distance.

Zadie Smith’s London, by contrast, has at its heart the capacity for community. In both White Teeth (2000) and NW (2012), Smith portrays an invigoratingly diverse North London, where friendships are mapped out across social and cultural divides. NW in particular has a firm sense of place and Smith is expert at conveying the city’s messy charm, adopting different voices with ease. Interestingly, she never describes the race of her characters unless they are white.

In Markovits’s Detroit, Greg Marnier is part of a new wave of 21st-century pioneers who pride themselves on their community spirit and open-mindedness. Abandoned warehouses are bought up by internet start-ups and performance artists. The new residents barter goods and services online. The rejuvenation project gains the attention of President Barack Obama, who cites it as a fine example of grassroots action.

Obama even appears in the novel. He takes part in an impromptu basketball game with his former special aide Reggie Love (“Obama put up a jump shot and missed, and Reggie grabbed the rebound and kicked it back to him.”) It says a lot about Markovits’s sureness of touch that he invents such a scene without it seeming jarringly improbable.

The mainly black old Detroiters are not convinced by this new vision: many refuse to sell their houses and treat the incomers with suspicion. Often, the suspicion is laced with racist undertones and given extra edge by the economic disparity between them and the new elites. Markovits handles the set-up with wit and insight. The city, in his hands, becomes a backdrop and a metaphor for tensions between black and white, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, haves and have nots.

Marnier wants to believe in the fundamental goodness of Detroit and yet can’t escape his prejudices. He doesn’t think he is racist, but sometimes he just is. He notes, for instance, every time a person he meets is black, sometimes down to the shade of their skin (“aubergine,” “muddy-looking,” “high yellow”) in a way he never does if the person is white. Sometimes this makes uncomfortable reading. At one point, Marnier walks into a school where the guard, the receptionist and the pupils are all black, and he says he feels “like I’d entered another country, after an airplane flight.”

There is also his queasy sense of missionary zeal. When Marnier leaves a glamorous party in an architect-designed warehouse, he is anxious to find himself in an empty car park: “I started to feel scared… The world seemed very large around me, not just the planet itself but the number of people, the scale of buildings and the general infrastructure, highways and tracks and office blocks and container depots.”

Marnier’s fearfulness co-exists with an infatuation for a black high-school teacher called Gloria, whom he eventually winds up dating, and with a growing awareness of the racial tension surrounding him. A blonde artist named Astrid claims to have been raped by a black man but her story is called into question. A black youth steals a mobile phone and is then hit by a car driven by a white man, whose intent or lack of it becomes the subject of national debate. A white child is found wandering the streets by a black man who takes him into his car—is this act hostile or protective? The plot-lines are given an added piquancy by their timeliness. You Don’t Have To Live Like This arrives at a moment when Americans are witnessing the birth of a new civil rights movement, triggered by several shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers.

Markovits winkles out the contradictions of those white middle-class do-gooders who campaigned for Obama believing that his election would solve the civil rights issue. At one point, Marnier gets into a discussion about Obama with Nolan (“a big black guy, built like a linebacker”). Nolan insists that Obama “was just like every other president, a front man for big business.” Marnier counters: “I don’t care what else you want to say about him, I said, but to have a black man in the Oval Office makes you a witness to history. Am I supposed to be grateful, Nolan asked. Oh give me a break, I said, and started walking away.”

Markovits’s prose is full of casual observations that illustrate larger issues with economy and gentle humour. He is especially good on the disconnection between individual experience and the defamiliarising forces of urban existence. To his credit the reader never quite loses sympathy with Marnier, whose occasional ignorance springs from a desire to see the best in people rather than malicious intent. By the end of this fine, provocative novel, Marnier has learned that truths exist on several levels and that the Detroit in which he lives means different things to different people. For Markovits—as for Dickens, Joyce and Woolf before him—the city is a constantly evolving organism against which the best stories can be told.