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Failed colonies: The pitfalls of urban renewal

Nov 24, 2015 Books

You Don’t Have to Live Like This: A Novel 
Benjamin Markovits
(Allen & Unwin, $32.99)

A Meaningful Life
LJ Davis
(New York Review Books Classics, $32.99)

This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of Metro. 


Finally, novels that address the issues Auckland cares most about: real estate and race!

Benjamin Markovits, one of Granta’s “best young British novelists”, tells a story of urban renewal in America that reads so much like reportage we need the subtitle to remind us it’s actually fiction, while LJ Davis’ dark 1971 comedy, recently reissued, reminds us this is a scab American writers have been picking at for generations.

Detroit in the Obama era is an industrial ghost town, with neighbourhoods depopulated, poverty-stricken and burnt out. Enter Robert James, self-made billionaire with a hankering to reboot American society by applying “the Groupon model of gentrification”: buying up suburbs and reseeding a new middle class.

It’s a rerun of Davis’ Brooklyn in the 1970s, where handsome brownstone mansions, sub- and sub-sub-divided into squalid apartments for black and Puerto Rican labourers, became the target of the first generation of yuppies looking for a worthy project to fill their weekends.

The common denominator is that the noble vision is entrusted to a wholly unsuitable protagonist. Back in 1971, it’s Stanford graduate Lowell Lake, who sets his eyes on renovating the Brooklyn mansion of a long-dead adventurer (and criminal) as a way of transcending a disappointing career and a low-watt marriage. In present-day Detroit, it’s James’ Yale classmate Marney, an aimless 30-something academic specialising in colonial American history (handy, since the mission is unashamedly a recolonisation), who, while also renovating his own once-abandoned house, introduces us to the cast of latter-day pilgrims. They’re an unlikely lot — misfits and slackers, white (or off-white) survivalists, sperm donors, installation artists, exiles from second or third marriages, all looking to belong to something bigger than themselves. Most bring guns, all bring “issues”, but they are like most people at the heart of great social experiments: just muddling through.

Both protagonists are jaundiced and self-absorbed, life’s drifters, but with a great eye for its small absurdities. The new settlers, Marney notes, “never knew their neighbours well enough to borrow an egg, so now they borrow lots of eggs”. (Markovits’ skilful handling of irony, by letting it lie where it falls, is an attribute which alone justifies Granta claiming this native Texan as “British”.)

“The trouble with being a pioneer is you want a new life and you set up an outpost and soon it looks like the life you left.”

It soon becomes abundantly clear that the settlers lack entirely the mettle to restore America’s founding promises. “[The] trouble with being a pioneer is you want a new life and you set up an outpost and soon it looks like the life you left.” Nevertheless, the fusing of entrepreneurialism and social idealism becomes national news, even attracting Barack Obama, who makes a cameo appearance (providing the novel’s title in a pitch-perfect piece of off-the-cuff oratory, and then mucking about with the protagonists on the basketball court).

Like 17th-century New England, neither 1970s Brooklyn nor present-day Detroit is terra nullius. Detroit in particular is the archetypal black city (80 per cent by head-count), home of Motown and the 1967 riots, and race is the unspoken subtext of every conversation.

The central thread of Markovits’ narrative (unspooled at a frustratingly pedestrian pace) concerns Marney’s half-hearted attempts to win over two of the locals, his charismatic neighbour Nolan (who ominously describes his hometown as “occupied territory”) and a black school-teacher, Gracey, with whom Marney starts a promising but tellingly unconsummated relationship. Failure on both fronts is inevitable, and in Nolan’s case it leads to a “crime” that threatens to undermine the fragile trust upon which the whole enterprise (or at least the prospect of rising property values) rests.

In Davis’ novel, the crime is Lowell Lake’s, a drunken overreaction to a questionable threat that condemns him, like some shade in Dante’s Hell, to live out a life drained of the meaning he had sought.

This moral judgment is sadly lacking in You Don’t Have to Live Like This, where Marney (and one feels Markovits, too) opts for disengagement and resignation.

“I guess I don’t like the way facts become facts”, Marney concludes, as he lets things fall apart and then walks away. Catchy, perhaps, but it seems an empty sentiment, and the refusal to condemn Marney’s lethargy and cowardice robs the book of the opportunity to say something significant about America’s flawed pursuit of the great urban society. It leaves us as readers sadder, but not much wiser.


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