“This is a kind of self-obsession”.
He is self obsessed. Annoying. A thirtysomething Yale graduate drifting through life. A white outsider who stumbles his way through this claustrophobic drama set in a semi-derelict stretch of Detroit.
But his story is a very good read.
The narrator of “You Don’t Have to Live Like This” is Greg Marnier. He doesn’t know where he stands between insiders and newcomers, dispossessed and profiteer, above all between black and white. Mostly, ‘Marny’ doesn’t want those “sides” to exist at all, and the reader has to decide whether he’s simply naive or somehow stoking the tensions as the story builds to its racially charged climax.
This novel by Benjamin Markovits is a story about real lives wrapped around real estate. There are echoes of other voices from Tom Wolfe to Jonathan Franzen to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but Markovits comes across as an original, with some biting observations of the way we treat ourselves and others. Can we afford trust?
The force that pushes the plot is Marny’s old college contemporary Robert James. He has drive where Marny has drift. He’s made his money in hedge funds and now he’s looking to the opportunity presented by all that abandoned real estate in Detroit. Houses are bought up, a cooperative formed, and ’five neighborhoods’ emerge in what the media takes to calling “New Jamestown”. Neighbors help neighbors, schools and clinics are planned, an urban farm emerges. Black resident Nolan Smith is angry from the outset. This, he says, is “an occupying force”. There’s even a twist in which Goldman Sachs is called upon (again) to play the big city bad guy.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t appear, but this is a book published in 2015, and it’s there on the horizon. Greg Marnier is a flawed narrator – a white boy from Louisiana who witnesses events without ever seeing the bigger picture. He reflects frankly on the fact that he doesn’t know how to relate to black Americans. It makes for uncomfortable reading, and when I heard Markovits give a reading at the British Library’s Eccles Centre last month, he remarked that it’s uncomfortable for him too, because some readers will assume that the narrator somehow mirrors the author’s voice. But now I’ve read through the novel I think that’s a lot of what makes it a really absorbing, challenging read.
I’ve lived outside Detroit, spending a semester at the Knight-Wallace Foundation in Ann Arbor, the city that’s home to the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor is a liberal academic enclave. It’s relatively white and prosperous. I was really busy when I was there, juggling study and childcare. But I really kick myself now that I never made time to explore the streets of inner city Detroit.
If I went back today, I’d still feel awkward about being somehow voyeuristic, a white tourist checking out the decline of a once-great black American city. There’s that ugly phrase, “disaster porn”, on this novel’s dust jacket. But not to go means staying inside my own comfort zone. Ignoring a problem that isn’t going away.
“You Don’t Have to Live Like This” begs the question: or do you?