Review 1686: You Don’t Have To Live Like This

Greg Marnier in his 30’s finds himself at loose ends. He has been in Wales teaching history classes as an adjunct during the last few years but has moved back home to Baton Rouge and can’t find a job. He is an overthinker, who seems generally clueless and inert throughout the novel.

Marny, as his friends call him, went to Yale with Robert James, who has made a fortune and now claims to want to do some good. It’s 2011, and property is cheap in deserted Detroit. Robert wants to buy a large number of houses and sell them to people who want to change their lives, fix up the houses, and create communities, thereby forcing urban renewal. Marny decides he’s in.

This idea is sort of interesting, but Marny right away struck me as deficient in something. For example, he doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with Robert’s company having tried to force some of the original occupants in the five neighborhoods, most of whom are black, out of their houses, to displace them with newcomers who are mostly white. Marny makes tentative friends with an angry black Detroit native named Nolan, but when his friend Tony won’t let his small child play with Nolan’s small child because Tony is a racist, he says nothing and continues to be friends with both.

Marny half-heartedly pursues a black schoolteacher named Gloria romantically and then doesn’t seem to know what to do with her once he’s got her. But like all the conversations in this novel, their discussions of race seem strangely unfinished and unsatisfying.

In general, Markovits’s handling of the book’s themes of racism and gentrification seems deficient and naïve. Nothing much happens for a long time except an exhaustive retelling of Marny’s day-to-day life until there’s a series of events and a trial that change everything.

Markovits has a background in magazine writing, which I wouldn’t mention if it didn’t affect the novel. Just like in a magazine feature, Marny describes each character as he or she comes into the story and provides a short background. This is not an organic outgrowth of the novel, where it is more usual to find out about a character’s background through a conversation or some other organic construct (research on the part of another character, for example) unless the novel is omnisciently narrated. It seems very artificial in fiction as it does not in a magazine article, and frankly, some of the characters seem stereotypical. There are also a lot of them, as there are a lot of those unsatisfying conversations, many of which have little to do with the story.

I think that the subject matter of this novel is important, but I don’t think Markovits is the person to handle it, at least not judging by this book. Including its clumsy title (which seems to be a thing these days), his novel was not one of my favorites from my James Tait Black project.

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Day 773: We Need New Names

Cover for We Need New NamesI wanted to like We Need New Names more than I did. It is about an interesting topic and is vividly written, sometimes with striking images. But like some of the commenters on Goodreads, I agree that it seems to be trying to deal with too many issues at once. Somehow, I did not get as involved as I expected.

Darling is a tween girl running with her friends from Paradise, a slum of tin shacks in Zimbabwe. They spend their time playing games and stealing guavas from a richer neighborhood called Budapest. Darling’s father has been away in South Africa for years, trying to find work, but they haven’t heard from him or received any money. While Darling’s mother is traveling to sell things, Darling stays with her grandmother, Mother of Bones.

Eventually we learn that Darling’s family used to live a middle class life in a brick house, but the government knocked down their neighborhood. So, they came to live in Paradise.

Bulawayo’s tale is focused enough until, after a vote against the corrupt government results in retaliation, things become too dangerous and she is sent to live with her aunt in Detroit. Perhaps the last third of the novel reflects Darling’s confusion as a teenager, but it packs in scenes of typical teenage years conflated with growing awareness of issues back home, the disconnected feelings of immigrants, the war in Afghanistan, some sneers at the U.S., and her own homesickness. At some times it feels as if Bulawayo thinks America should be responsible for the welfare of all nations, which it can’t possibly do.

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Day 589: Broken Monsters

Cover for Broken MonstersIn the wreck of the city of Detroit, Detective Gabi Versado is investigating the bizarre murder of a young African-American boy. His torso is found glued to the body of a deer. Gabi is so involved in the case that she doesn’t realize her teenage daughter Layla and Layla’s best friend Cas are attempting to entrap a child molester.

Jonno is a failed writer who moves to Detroit and is soon posting video blogs about the wild art scene. He just happens to be on the scene to videotape the discovery of another weird murder.

Clayton is an artist whose work has recently shifted. A few people have been stunned by the strange beauty of his animal fusion statues. An art promoter wants him to exhibit at a massive art party where the artists are assembling themed shows in a group of abandoned houses.

Beukes steadily builds tension in a novel that juxtaposes the ruins of the city with themes about abuse of the Internet. Those who are fans of her stunning debut, The Shining Girls, will not be surprised by the additional twist the plot takes.

http://www.netgalley.comIf I have any criticism, and it is a very small one, it is that the South African author, who has set both of her novels in the urban ruins of large cities in the U.S., occasionally gets her American idioms wrong.