An initially romanticised look towards living in new conceptions of ‘small-town’ America comes loaded with all the societal baggage that that entails, including the inevitable parallels easily drawn between gentrified Detroit and the first landings at Jamestown, especially for their racial context.
A family try to sell snacks amid the debris of an impoverished neighbourhood of Detroit.
Benjamin Markovits’ novel throws the reader into a world filled with divisions that characters are trying to eradicate using overly ambitious quick-fix solutions, based upon self-satisfying opinions loaded with an all too convenient prejudice. What it results in is a sharp and critical look at the blurring of lines between an embedded race and class system in America that many are too quick to deny or conveniently forget. Like many of the novels and secondary readings previously examined on this course, You Don’t Have to Live Like This utilises a well-trodden narrative system that structures itself around notions of precariousness, marginalisation and disasters waiting to happen. In this case, accidental or ill-informed, slightly racist ideas play a major role.
However, the sticking point of the novel is that narrator Greg Marnier is a character who simply fails to understand identity politics, due to a self-reinforcing system of tokenism carefully and deliberately constructed by Markovits in order to emphasise a form of societal ignorance. There are so many characters with differing opinions on racial identity in the novel (Tony perhaps being the most openly racist) but given the brevity of this blog it is Marnier who we shall focus on, because he is most striking for the way Markovits presents his frequent bouts of ignorance in a veiled form of innocence. In many ways, Marnier is in effect fulfilling Franz Fanon’s ideas of racial stereotyping: ‘a man who has a language constantly possesses the world expressed and implied by that language’ (18). His approach to black identity and society is borne out of creating his own narrative which then gives his ideas a personal sense of legitimacy, even when being presented to the reader in a pastoral manner.
In real life, some people feel Marnier-types are evil hipsters.
So, how does Marnier do this? You Don’t Have to Live Like This is packed with examples of Marnier trying to confront his opinions on race in a manner that ultimately comes across as a form of tokenism, of finding quick-fix solutions to racial issues in the same way that Robert James wants to find a quick-fix for Detroit’s poverty. Take Marnier’s relationship with Gloria Lambert, a black high school teacher. When he meets her for the first time, it is the colour of her skin that is emphasised first with an uneasy tone of fascination: ‘a ripe coloured black woman, almost eggplant coloured’ (72). In many ways, the narration of his relationship is presented to us as more of a way for Marnier to educate himself about black issues: ‘I started reading a lot of African-American literature…..I figured I may as well educate myself’ (203). What this really seems to imply is that while Marnier is aware that he doesn’t entirely understand race issues, he frequently equates all black individuals as being part of the same collective plight, which to some extent undermines their humanity.
Other interactions with black characters reinforce this idea, but emphasise Marnier’s sheer naivety in trying to find a solution. When he shares a car with his neighbour Nolan’s friends, we get a real sense of how far this goes: ‘the two guys in back with me were Marcellus and Taequan. “Is that like Tae-kwon-do?” I said and he wrinkled his nose like something smelled bad. With these people, you figured, you have to give as good as you get’ (145). By describing Nolan’s black friends as ‘these people’, there is immediately a sense of division presented to the reader, but the reaction of Taequan is used by Markovits to demonstrate just how ridiculous Marnier looks at times to other characters.
It is all too easy to jump to the basic conclusions that Marnier is ignorant because of his obvious privilege and background, but from a literary perspective the effect of this is reinforced through Marnier’s often bland, this-then-that-then-this style of narration, tainted with a deliberately placed ignorance presented as innocence. He comes across as trying to connect with his black neighbours and friends, but is left looking rather foolish.
Markovits himself has argued writing Marnier in the book ‘felt uncomfortable…I wanted to write from the point of view of somebody who was a bit off the ball about race. It is very easy to write a racist because we would all understand that I [a writer] was different from them. But if I write from the point of view of someone who misunderstands some things…it seems to be an interesting discomfort to explore’. It is this discomfort that the reader feels many times reading the thoughts of Marnier, and perhaps it has more of a sense of realism because Marnier really doesn’t wish to offend anybody with active racist speech. Instead, he makes a series of small ignorances that present him as somebody that just really doesn’t truly understand why he is irritating the people around him.
Protesters in California marching against gentrification.
Lastly, and most obviously, is Marnier’s status as one of the initial residents of the gentrification plan, because one of those with capital seeking to change the established (albeit impoverished) population of Detroit. Naomi Klein references such goings on in America in relation to a form of capitalist colonialism where those with capital can claim territory by the chequebook rather than the gun (50). The disaster of poverty is Detroit is perfect ground for such a plan, and from the racial context Markovits is acutely aware of this; when the gentrified neighbourhoods are planned out, maintaining a proportion of black residents is emphasises to present an image of racial diversity: ‘we sat around all day looking at Facebook, deciding who would get to join our village. Like a bunch of assholes’ (57). Yes, the prejudice may be more veiled, but it exists through a faux-humane system. However, at one stage of the book it is agreed by many of the gentrification movement of Robert James that the black residents of these neighbourhoods should keep quiet because white people are driving up their property values. Sometimes Markovits lets the prejudice show its teeth.
Ultimately, Marnier is an embodiment of the contemporary face of misunderstanding. He tries to ‘solve’ problems that are often just too complex to fix by a single person, and as a result leaves us as readers looking at our own perspectives towards frequently sensitive issues.
Images: https://www.detroityes.com/mb/attachment.php?attachmentid=28123&d=1443022560, http://www.latina.com/sites/default/files/slideshow/2015-10-19/gentrification.jpg, hipsterracistfiles.wordpress.com/2013/08/hipster-go-home
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, White Masks. Pluto. 2008.
Klein, Naomi. “Disaster Capitalism: The New Economy of Catastrophe,” 2007, PDF provided on QOL.
Markovits, Benjamin. Interview for Jewish Book Week. http://www.jewishbookweek.com/past-events/2599/video
Markovits, Benjamin. You Don’t Have to Live like This. Faber & Faber. 2013.