You Don’t Have To Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits

Detroit cover

Benjamin Markovitz is celebrated as a prose stylist. ‘The park was busy, the weather was white and cold,’ he writes on p138 of You Don’t Have To Live Like This. As he is writing about Detroit, Michigan, in winter, the ‘white’ works nicely here. He doesn’t mean that it’s snowing, nor – obviously – is the weather actually ‘white’. Instead, the author is describing a feeling – an impression – of how the day feels. I take it to mean it is bright but with light cloud: the dominant sense, then, is of a white day.

Nicely done. He’s a writer, this is the sort of little, telling detail that writers come up with. A shame, then, that the effect is rather spoilt by repetition, a mere seven pages later: ‘It was about thirty degrees outside, a white, cold day…’ (p145). Never mind, probably won’t happen again… Oh no, hang on…Markovitz whips it out once more on p160, albeit with a little variation: ‘The sky had the almost white blue colour of a late winter afternoon’ (p160). This is actually worse – now he’s even describing it: if we didn’t know that it was ‘white’ because it was – or seemed like – ‘winter’, he spells it out. But this is characteristic of his prose.

On p135 Markovitz has a lengthy paragraph on what different characters think about one another. That’s certainly one way of doing it: another might be to…I don’t know…oh, yes…you could allow the characters to reveal that themselves through the writing and their dialogue. ‘Nothing particularly noteworthy happened,’ his narrator writes at one point. Then Markovitz tells us all about it. On it goes. Rather than building a narrative, he simply describes one (often not very interesting) set-piece after another. You can see the joins.

It doesn’t help that the story itself is negligible. The premise is good: Detroit has been in decline since the 1960s. There are hundreds – thousands – of abandoned houses, many within sight of the gleaming Motown downtown. You’ve seen the pictures.

A group of middle-class pioneers arrive to buy up cheap housing and create a new utopia. Discord ensues.

Tom Wolfe might have made something of it. Markovitz doesn’t.

 

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