When Granta announced its latest Best Young British Novelists in 2013, Benjamin Markovits was probably the oldest (born in 1973), certainly the tallest (6ft 6in), maybe the most American (Californian by birth) and one of the most prolific: his impressive trilogy about Lord Byron comprised his fourth, fifth and sixth novels in total.
Markovits’s first book as an official Young British Novelist returns him and indeed his narrator Greg Marnier to their original American milieu. As the curtain rises, Marnier is ploughing an unsatisfying academic furrow in Britain (Markovits also teaches, at Royal Holloway in London). As he reveals in what proves to be characteristic detail, Marnier has wound up covering maternity leave in Aberystwyth and in a series of unsatisfactory short-term contracts.
These twin feelings of displacement and temporariness are not how Marnier’s initially stellar career (Yale, Oxford) was meant to be. He bemoans belonging to an over-privileged generation, “working harder than they wanted, making less money, living somewhere they didn’t want to live”. Sexually nervous, remote and passive, Marnier feels like he has just stepped out of a salon, albeit a literary one run by Julian Barnes.
Salvation arrives via a well-timed reunion with fellow “Yalies”, many of whom like slick former squash buddy Robert James seem to be multimillionaires. “Marny”, as he was known to his college buddies, returns to the States where James makes an offer he can hardly refuse: to participate in an ambitious and idealistic plan to regenerate Detroit. Armed with hope and a gun (Marny berates his mother for racism, but is not free of prejudice himself), he heads west.
Detroit is shaken by the aftershocks of the economic meltdown – denuded of an economy, citizens and community, but also (as James sees it) ripe for the picking. His vision is to create “a kind of Groupon model for gentrification” by buying up glorious but unwanted housing stock and moving in tenants, not so much upwardly mobile as in need of a change of pace. Many of the novel’s sparks fly as new (white) and old (largely black) Detroit rub sticks.
Marnier’s academic fastidiousness makes the first third pretty heavy going. His opening sentence – “When I was younger I was never much good at telling stories” – is brave, honest or foolhardy. To begin with, I suspected the latter two. Exact to the point of fussiness, his sentences move like they are learning to walk on stilts, slowly and jerkily. “So I put on my coat and second-best leather shoes, which I had sprayed the night before with waterproof sealant. (I didn’t own any northern-winter boots).”
The novel takes off when Marny finally lands in Detroit, and an honest-to-goodness plot intervenes in all the lecturing. Within the unstable atmosphere of his new neighbourhood, reserve is impossible, his limitations provocative. Marny’s attitude to women is woeful but revealing: from his drippy adoration of college crush Beatrice to his frankly atrocious behaviour towards the German artist, Astrid. It is his relationship with Gloria, a black teacher even more evasive than he, that reflects escalating social tensions.
This is traced by a story that begins as The Great Gatsby (Marny’s Carraway to James’s Gatsby) accelerates like a socio-realist J G Ballard (High-Rise expanded to city-wide dimensions) and climaxes à la Bonfire of the Vanities, after a pair of accidents raise tensions in Marny’s neighbourhood towards boiling point. Everything is exposed, from James’s less utopian impulses to Marny’s fence-sitting and latent bigotry.
After a frustrating start, You Don’t Have to Live Like This proves ambitious and intelligent. There are memorable scenes (Marny playing ball, in various senses, with Barack Obama) and neat jokes – not least about hipsters taking over the urban world. Markovits is more successful when describing 21st-century middle-class disillusion than evoking the racial discord grabbing headlines in America right now. Marny’s restraint is a blessing and a curse. Whether he, or indeed Detroit, will ever be liberated is another question entirely.Reuse content