You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits
On a trip back to the US from his dead-end academic posting in Wales, Greg ‘Marny’ Marnier is wooed by an old college friend, tech entrepreneur Robert James, to be part of a large-scale experiment: James, having bought-up thousands of cheap homes in recession-ravaged Detroit, seeks to establish a new, harmonious community from scratch – the ‘Groupon model for gentrification’.
What starts as a redemptive tale of gentrification and urban renewal slowly morphs into a sprawling microcosm of 21st-century racial tensions – from the predominantly white, middle-class newcomers in a predominantly black city, to Marny’s own tendency to over-think his relationships with African-American residents, such as his girlfriend Gloria and the enigmatic and unpredictable local artist Nolan Smith.
Marny is well-meaning but naïve, his soft liberalism and aversion to conflict becoming almost pathetic in the face of an intractable divide. Writing with straight-talking realism, Markovits’ harsh realities about inequality in modern America make for at-times uncomfortable reading – straightforward crimes become politicised and overanalysed by a narrative-hungry media, and a jaded cop’s frank account of the rape prosecution process is hard to stomach.
Reminiscent of The Wire and Don Delillo’s White Noise, Markovits’ seventh novel is a timely meditation on the multiple layers of rot in modern America – the law, politics (complete with a mildly absurd cameo from Barack Obama), and business – particularly the arrogance of Silicon Valley and its utopian aspirations. There’s no neat resolution to these problems. By the end of the novel, things are as bleak and complicated as ever, both for Marny and for Detroit. The novel drags in its first half, and groans at times under the weight of its large cast of characters. But by bringing these tensions to the surface, You Don’t Have To Live Like This proves challenging, illuminating and necessary.
Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.