‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday 29 June 2016

Ben Markovits, You Don't Have To Live Like This (2015)

I'm going to start with a couple of paragraphs of plot-summary, including quite a few spoilers, because there are things I want to talk about that relate to some of these specifics. You can skip these two paragraphs, of course, if you haven't read the novel. You can also skip the whole post, maybe go have a cup of tea and a biscuit instead. It's entirely up to you.

You Don't Have To Live Like This is narrated by Greg Marnier, known as 'Marny', a middle-class white American who follows a good university education at Yale and Oxford with a dead-end academic job in Aberystwyth. He's an unattached twentysomething who feels his life isn't going anywhere. Since he has nothing to lose, he joins a group of people being organised by one of his school friends, handsome Robert James, now a dotcom millionaire. James's plan is to buy up whole neighbourhoodfuls of abandoned properties in the most deprived areas of Detroit, and bring-in people prepared to live in them on the understanding that they renovate them and contribute to the regeneration of the area. It's a kind of 21st-century dot-com-age Capitalist Pantisocracy, really, and Marny is enthused. So he goes to Detroit, and for a while the project seems to be working. Obama, newly elected, turns up to give the project, or less specifically to give the idea of ground-up urban regeneration, his imprimatur, and the novel handles his cameo well (a bit like Thatcher's appearance in Hollinghurst's Line of Beauty, although in other ways the two novels are poles apart).

But this influx of largely white newcomers into a largely black city agitates deep and underlying racial tensions. The second half of the novel traces the disintegration of Robert James's new community. One trigger is when a seventeen-year-old black kid called Dwayne Meacher steals an iPhone from somebody loosely associated with the project: a white guy called Sandy Brinkman. Meacher is on his pushbike, and as he cycles off rapidly with his loot a car hits him and knocks him down, leaving him in a coma. The driver of the car, another white called Tyler Waites, tells the police 'I was just trying to get in his way'; or perhaps he doesn't, because he later denies saying this. At any rate the whole incident becomes a cause célèbre, around which people polarise more-or-less along racial lines.  Later two more of Marny's friends get into a fight. One is a native Detroiter called Nolan (black) and the other is one of the white Pantisocrats, a man called Tony. Nolan in effect kidnaps Tony's young son Michael. It's a misunderstanding: he thinks he is kidnapping Robert James's kid, and is hoping to draw attention to the, as he sees it, pseudo-colonial occupation of his black town by a bunch of affluent whites. The kidnapping is nothing too heavy-duty, and Marny soon fetches Michael unharmed from Nolan's mother's house. But before he does Tony and Nolan have a fight, Marny the only witness. Nolan is knocked unconscious. This is either because he bangs his head on the floor, or else because the furious Tony kicks him when he is down; the novel doesn't clarify. By this stage in the novel our narrator Marny is in a relationship with a schoolteacher, a black woman called Gloria, who may or may not have previously been Nolan's girlfriend (we're never really told). Nolan recovers, but is prosecuted for the kidnapping. Marny has to testify at the trial, and when the guilty verdict doesn't match the feeling on the streets of neighbourhood (the story gets around that Nolan discovered young Michael wandering the streets and was trying to return the kid to his Dad when he was assaulted and hospitalised) a riot breaks out. The whole neighbourhood, pretty much, burns. Gloria dumps Marny.

Now, I hurry all that plot-summary, rather unceremoniously, out of the way because I think plot is very far from being the most interesting aspect of this (very interesting) novel. Not that the content is nugatory, or irrelevant, or unengaging, but that the novel is more powerfully about the way such elements of content—people's individual lives, loves and adventures, society's cohesion or disintegration—are embodied in literary form. That may sound dry, as if I'm arguing the novel is merely an exercise in the aesthetics of fiction. It's more than that, but the reason it's more than that is that Markovits understands precisely that representation and reality cannot be neatly separated out. Reality exists in itself but also, and often primarily, it exists in the stories we tell about it, and Markovits' real interest is with this latter.

As far as that goes, You Don't Have To Live Like This shop-windows its own textual strategy right at the beginning. Here's the first paragraph:
When I was younger I was never much good at telling stories. If I scored a goal at Pee Wee soccer, which didn't happen often, I used to try and describe it for my brother over the hot dog and potato chips. Then he kicked it there and I ran here and he passed it to me there. My brother called these my "this and then this and then this" stories. I don't know that I've gotten any better at it. [1]
That's how Marny narrates the whole novel. It's true that there's a degree of storytelling swerve in the early chapters, when he dips into the backstory of how he met Robert James, and various others, not least the alluring Beatrice, who won't sleep with him but with whom he remains half-in-love throughout the tale. But once we get to the 'Groupon model for gentrification' [17] in Detroit, the story rolls straight through. It's all told in this deliberately run-on, unemphatic style, this and then this and then this, leavened with this occasional smart observation or that vivid piece of description. It's a balance between a deliberate blandness of affect and a saving precision of detail. Marny is confessing to storytelling incompetence much as Othello announces 'rude am I in my speech' immediately before going on to towering heights of Shakespearian eloquence.
The consortium planned to rent out the houses, business units, and land very cheaply, not just to individuals but also to groups of people who would organise themselves over the Internet and put in bids ... Robert also brought in a team of consultants, specialists in urban renewal, and the truth is, they called most of the shots. I remember a black woman named Barbara—Barbara Stamford from Stanford, this is how she introduced herself, one of these woman who jogs eight miles a day and lives off cottage cheese, She wore cheerful bright-rimed Prada glasses. Once or twice a week we met up in the big dining room with printouts and laptops cluttering the table. Sometimes I came straight from the house and the leathery smell of gardening gloves on my hands and paint scabs spotting my hair and pants. [57-58]
That 'one of these women who ...' is a recurring tic: people often disposed by Marty's pigeonholing sensibility into this or that box: 'one of those mothers who'; 'one of those people with a confession to make' and so on. Then onto the next page:
Meanwhile the weather improved. Baton Rouge doesn't make much of spring, but over the Detroit sidewalks trees bloomed and lawns, pushing off snow, broke out in daffodils. Robert and I went running sometimes on Belle Isle Park, along the river, where the wind was cold but not bitter. A skyline view of Detroit, as clean as you like, stood up straight-backed on the far shore. There were cold blue days busy with clouds and hot white afternoons and gray mornings where the rain came down as hard as if it fell off a roof. [59]
And so on. It's cleverly done: Markovits has a particularly good ear for dialogue, and he understands the game he is playing. Quotidiana stretch out, all narrated as this and this and this, and when something more charged happens—a rape, an assault, a riot—we are halfway into the account before we really register that this is something more than merely another this in a thisstring. It makes for a distinctive, and often effective, overall tone.

Marny has an on-off relationship with a young German woman called Astrid, a rather sweetly pretentious and awful artist manquée who doesn't believe in privacy or boundaries and who videos everything that happens to her. She is raped by a black Detroitan, and afterward makes video art out of her experience, including an interview with the rapist's sister. When Marny and she first have sex she insists on videoing it, and this footage later finds its way online. This, I have to say, would freak me out; but Marny seems unfazed. Unfazed is the whole tone of the novel.

If I'm giving the impression that You Don't is a kind of cooled-down example of nouveau roman-y flattened affect, then I'm giving an erroneous impression. It's not a flat novel, despite the designedly flattening telling. The this-and-this-and-this style leaves it to us to select which thises are more and which less significant, and one of the structurally very clever things Markovits does is build the novel in such a way that, as we accumulate more this-and-this data-points, we start to see a pattern that brings the more important elements into a sharper relief. Conversations baldly reported become, when we think back with hindsight, freighted with emotion, or significance. Some thises provoke ripples, and some don't, and some of the former expand to determine the whole shape of the latter portion of the novel. Other thises strike us as probably important, in the moment, but become less so as the novel goes on. So, for example: the scene where Marny meets the new President. 'This is what Obama looked like from fifty paces, a young Arab businessman. His head looked small and he seemed light on his feet' [178] Obama gives a speech, and Markovits does a good job of catching his cadences.
'The people rebuilding Detroit, and some of you are in this room right now, are still tinkering with it, still adapting it, still moving forward. You have come here from Albuquerque and Chicago, from Queens and from Cleveland and from San Diego. You have come here from Mexico and Poland and Sudan and from right here in Detroit. You have come because you lost your job or you couldn't get a job or you had to work three jobs just to put food on the table. ... You have come because there was a voice in your head saying You don't have to live like this. There's a better way to live. This voice has called people to America for over four hundred years. [179]
I take it the point here is that political speech-giving also entails a this and this and this logic, albeit one structured according to a different rhetorical logic than Markovits' novel. Afterwards Marny, and a bunch of other people, play basketball with Obama. In the heat of the game somebody elbows Marny in the face. 'I sat down on the frozen concrete, trying to hold the blood in with my fingers. Obama put his hand on my head. "You all right, kid?" he said. "Let's call this thing off."' [189] But Marny insists on playing on, and afterwards earns a Presidential compliment: 'Obama put his arm around me and said, "I want you to know something about this guy. He's not a whiner".'

This scene gets structurally echoed at the novel's end. After the trial Marny is at a friend's house, playing with his toddler, Michael. One of the 'toys' used is an old disused bakelite telephone. 'When I tried to take the phone away he hit me in the face. The earpiece caught my cheekbone under the eye. It was like somebody unplugged the nerves. I couldn't feel anything, even my lip, or part of it, went numb' [378]. His friends take him to hospital, but the cheek is broken and the nerve traumatised. It's in the hospital waiting room, watching the TV in the corner, that Marny first finds out about the riots. In effect the novel is saying: a well-meaning white guy tries to make the world a little better, and he gets literally smacked in the face for his troubles, not once but twice.

This in turn has much to do with the novel's approach to characterisation. Just as the book's narrative is a 'thisstream', so its apparent approach to character is a tessellation of external specifics. Even Marny, whose voice determines the whole, emerges with odd opacities where, in another sort of novel. his 'characterisation' would be. That's because I'm not convinced You Don't Have To Live Like This is really trying for 'rounded' characters (manic-artist-pixie Astrid, in particular, never feels 'real'; Beatrice feels under-drawn; whereas Gloria, on the other hand, feels a little too over-determined by backstory and neurosis and motivation ever to come properly alive). I think the main aim here is the portrait not of individual as such, but of individuals as elements in something larger: communities, tribes and 'society'.

And this is where we come to the real nub of the matter (if, by 'the matter', we mean 'my already overlong blog-post'). I think that inherent to the larger project of You Don't is the premise that society as a whole is best captured as a huge accretion of this and this and thises, or 'this person and this person and this person'. The novel is not afraid to ask some big questions about US society, about why some areas are rich and poor, about how race and class parlay into those facts. And Markovits' novel suggests the answer that society is just a kind of agglomeration of a whole bunch of particulars. As such, it is possible to talk about it in terms of flows, or tides, like collective anger or collective deprivation. But, I think this novel is saying, it misrepresents 'society' to talk in absolute terms as if there is an equation, or magic key, that can unify and explain it all, that can, in Donald Trump's resonant if porcine phrase, 'figure out what the hell is going on'.

The back-cover of my UK paperback carries the following endorsement from the Independent on Sunday:

But that's not right, really. Markovits' prose only superficially resembles Coetzee's (really, there's not a lot in common between those two writers). It's much more like the Bellow of, say, Humboldt's Gift, although Bellow without the automatic manly self-confidence, and without the surety that the rest of the world is a 'moronic inferno'. And this novel really isn't very like The Wire. This comparison is particularly lazy, actually: a shorthand for 'white writer produces text with lots of black characters in it'. But one of the ways The Wire works is via the establishment of governing metaphors for its representation of a whole functioning society: the police in series one, the docks in series two, school in series three, politics in four and the media in five. I have to say, I think this works rather brilliantly: I for one came away from that show with a real sense (spurious, I don't doubt) of Baltimore as a rounded, whole social network. But Markovits doesn't buy it. He doesn't believe society can be modeled by metaphor, or at least, can't be modeled this way without mendacity and distortion.

So the novel's take on that aspect of characterisation we might call 'interiority' (as opposed to all the 'she wore cheerful bright-rimed Prada glasses' exteriorised stuff) has to do with gauging intention. This is important—I mean, in life, it is. It plays a huge part in, for example, race relations: if white person A interacts with black person B it matters if they are motivated by racial hatred or contempt, or by more humane and positive impulses. The trigger episode in chapter 24, when young black iPhone thief Dwayne Meacher is run over by older white Sandy Waites, hinges on this. Marny and Gloria disagree over it:
My real argument with Gloria was this. You can't ever know why anybody does anything and this was a crime that depended entirely on motive, Did Meacher run into Waites's car or did the car run into Meacher? Witnesses on both sides were willing to swear to one thing or another. The simple fact was, car and bike had collided, and they might just as well have hit each other if Waites was trying to swerve out of the way and misjudged the angle. Which is why the whole thing came down to motive. To mens rea, as the put it in the papers: a guilty mind.

But what kind of guilty mind are we talking about? Could Waites have planned to knock Meacher down, for the sake of some long-term personal advantage? Of course not. So what do we mean by a guilty mind in this case? A racist inclination? Because every white American male of his generation who grew up in a town like Memphis was going to have something in his past ... that suggested a 'racist inclination.' If that was the test then Waites was always going to be guilty, then we are all guilty, even if Waites had tried to slam on the brakes he was guilty. And a test that everybody fails is no test. [230]
I've quoted this at length because it seems to me important to the novel. It's what Nolan believes (that all whites are racist, to varying degrees), and what motivates the direct-action opposition to the gentrification that in turn ends him up in prison and causes the riots. But it's not what Marny, or the novel, think. Go back to the two, paired injuries to Marny's face. The first was caused by someone's elbow; but obviously the basketball player didn't smash Marny's nose with malice aforethought. It was just one of those things that happen when people get excited playing a contact sport. The second was perhaps more intentional, but intended by an agent—an infant—who obviously cannot be held responsible. It's a serious injury, actually: Marny's face is paralyzed for many months. But when we try to talk about motive, or try to assign blame for his suffering, we soon realise it's not the right way to frame things.

The notion that this scales is You Don't's message, I think. Markovits's characters are rarely motivated by strong drives, prejudices or visions; nobody is a saint and nobody wholly a sinner. They move from this to this to this driven by the usual short-term desires and fears, and it just so happens that, en masse, they collect into social groups that perpetuate urban degeneration and racial tension. What I'm not sure about is how far this is a novel simply 'about' this as a version of how society actually is, and how far it is slyly critiquing Marny's tendency to do see things in these terms. After all, there are various indications here that Marny is not entirely trustworthy; and Markovits certainly doesn't spare his dignity at any point: all his little selfishnesses and short-sightednesses, all his Holden Caulfield runs of mental extrapolation (necessarily embarrassing in a man fifteen years Caulfield's senior) about becoming celibate or falling in love with all black people because he fancies Gloria. His passivity, and venality, his porn-habit and cluelessness. Give the novel the benefit of the doubt and its various slippages from precision into knowing stereotype (she was the type of woman who ...) acquire satirical force.

Having finished the book I put it down and thought about it for a bit. The big question here is whether Markovits' strategy is as good at capturing 'society' (or 'Detroit', or 'contemporary race relations') as it was as good at capturing 'sport' in Playing Days. The main character of that latter novel says to his girlfriend 'books are mostly about things happening to people, but nothing ever seems to happen to me. So I want to write books about that' Her reply is: ‘that doesn’t sound very interesting,’ [Playing Days, 166]. There's a higher quotient of 'things happening' in You Don't, but the bulk of the novel follows the earlier novel's approach. As you can see if you take the trouble to read my blogpost on it, I admire that earlier novel very much; but You Don't is clearly a more ambitious and more complex piece of work. Does it do the job it sets itself?

I'm not sure. This and this and this suits sport better than it suits socio-political conflict, I think (and I don't say so because I believe the former term to be trivial and the latter grandiosely important, or anything like that). Bellow is a great writer in many ways, but there are key ways in which he was also a pretty limited novelist, and his unabashed masculinism is one of the most severe of those limitations: his female characters tend either to caricature or an odd insubstantiality, even as his male characters, and especially his core male characters, grandstand and bluster their way. Markovits is a more rounded and subtle novelist than this, I'd say, but the male characters in You Don't have a heft that that the female ones don't, really.

Indeed, maybe that's the real focus of this novel: the ways men frame narratives of self-exculpation. One of the things that happens during the story is that Marny's parents split up, or rather that Marny's father leaves his mother for a younger woman. He writes long letters to Marny explaining himself:
You kids don't need us anymore. And I don't make your mother particularly happy. You're sixty-five years old, and all your so-called domestic virtue is really just another name for laziness. Get off your ass. I don't have any illusions about going it alone either ... But this is what I want to say. From the outside I look like a worse man now than I did two months ago. But it doesn't feel that way from the inside, it really doesn't. For the first time in years I feel like a moral agent again. I'm a human being, and people coming into contact with me are bumping into somebody who is actually there. They get some response. For years, and this is literally true, I didn't say a single thing I hadn't said before, not to anybody, not even to your mother. Now I say something new every day. [205]
Marny is rather impressed by this, though his girlfriend Gloria is having none of it ('this is the craziest excuse I ever heard. A man walks out on his wife to make himself a better man. And for something to talk about'). I'm with Gloria, I must say: but the novel invests great significance in the importance of men saying, and saying something new. This and this and this has, I suppose we could say, its active as well as its passive valence: it could be the acquiescence in stuff happening to you over and over, or it could be something more propulsive, something almost macho, making thing follow thing. A man acts in a way that, he knows, will cause great hurt to his wife and children, and afterwards he says I feel like a moral agent again. That's a moral universe where acting is more important than ethics.

The climax of the novel is Marny's court appearance, where he talks both about how tricky it is getting his account of events to capture the quiddity, or truth, of those events: not that he is lying, but rather that the saying is slippery in some existential way. 'This is true,' he says, looking back on his own testimony; 'it's what I did, but saying it felt like lying.' And more important even than the truth is the saying itself:
A few minutes later Judge Westinghouse called it a day. What surprised me is this: already I was reluctant to get off my chair. For someone who likes to talk, who cares about the difference between one way of saying something and another, who thinks of speech as the best kind of action ... it was like, for sailors, being in a high wind. People were paying attention, my answers mattered. Whereas that evening, I made myself dinner alone and had nothing to do but go over these answers in my head. [360]
That's a key passage for the novel, I think. And it doesn't, really, reflect well on Marny. One of the most significant thises in the this and this of his relationship with Gloria is when he cheats on her with Astrid. Marny relates this infidelity in a typically this and this and this manner, and the effect (at least for me) was of a weaselly abdication of ethical responsibility. It's not good to cheat on your girlfriend, and the way Marny tells us, and pointedly doesn't tell Gloria, pinpoints the culpability of the novel's ethos of Saying:
I almost hoped that we'd run into somebody downstairs, so I could sober up and change my mind, but we didn't. When we got there she said, "You can sleep in my bed, it's big enough. I don't mind." She undressed in front of me, she let me use her toothbrush, it was all very normal. But in the dark, when the lights were off, I couldn't help myself. I started touching her, and she responded quickly. It was strange, I felt very gentle towards her, when all night long we'd been scratchy and sarcastic. But afterwards I slept OK. I the morning I had to pick up my brother from the airport. My car was still parked in the road outside the bar and I worried something might have happened to it. But it was fine, and I drove to meet him in last night's clothes. [257]
You don't have to lie like this, I think.

1 comment:

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