There comes a point in Benjamin Markovits’ latest novel, You Don’t Have To Live Like This, where you become less concerned with the story he’s weaving and more so with the social commentary he seems to be making. It isn’t that his story is weak (it mostly isn’t) or even that it doesn’t hold your attention (it mostly does), but the timing of this novel this novel – published in the wake of tragedy in Ferguson, Obama singing “Amazing Grace” as part of his eulogy for a pastor lost in a racially-charged shooting, and American economics generally being in a disappointing state – make it all the more pertinent and intriguing.
You Don’t Have to Live Like This deals with a group of college friends who mount a project called Start-From-Scratch-in-America, in which they plan to revitalize a section of a nearly devastated Detroit. The story primarily follows Greg “Marny” Marnier, the historian of the group as “New Jamestown” (as it is called) begins to take off and subsequently come apart.
Marny, the Everyman stand-in of the group, has his fair share of adventures in this brave new world he’s helped to create: he becomes involved with a local African-American school teacher, befriends the tough-as-nails neighborhood bully, plays a game of pick-up basketball with a visiting Barack Obama, and develops a “will they/won’t they” flirtation with an old college flame. If all of this seems a bit much, well, that’s because it is. Markovits makes his Detroit feel a bit too dystopian from the offset, making it, in turn, a place where anything is possible. And therein lies the problem – his canvas is perhaps too blank and his choice of paints too colorful. There is no dearth of characters littering the streets of this Detroit; it’s often hard to keep all the players straight. The first third of the novel is mostly exposition, setting up the aforementioned scenarios. At times the narrative feels too busy, other times too sparse. Markovits’ writing, however, flows and is easy to engage with. He peppers a decent amount of humor throughout, and manages to avoid the trap of making this a story about white people trying to gentrify what was a predominantly black city.
It isn’t until things in New Jamestown start to come apart that you are able to move past the novel’s shortcomings. As Marny becomes disenchanted with how his and his comrades’ new community has unraveled, you’ll find yourself questioning and wondering about the just how stable or fragile the community you live in is. Is Markovits’ Detroit really so far removed from any other mid-sized, economically fragile city? Are race relations really crumbling before our eyes? Could this pseudo-recolonization from within really be far away? Is white privilege really a bigger problem than we are aware of?
In the end, the questions that Markovits has laid out for the reader make this a journey worth taking. And sometimes that’s what makes the most resonant of works: not the ones with the most elegant prose, but the ones that force us to look into ourselves (or our community) and question what we think we know.