Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
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You Don’t Have to Write Like This

Bookworm: Benjamin Markovits’s newly relevant ‘social-realist-quasi-socialist-alternative-community’ Detroit novel could have been a good book

Alexander Aciman
November 20, 2017
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

We could certainly use some alternatives to social reality right now, and what better place to find them than in books? But is Benjamin Markovits’ You Don’t Have to Live Like This the great social-realist-quasi-socialist-alternative-community novel of our times? Did I miss it?

Only a few pages in, however, I realized that Markovits’ novel is no Erewhon. It is sadly a product of our times, in which books can disguise themselves as good simply by not being totally unreadable. Works like Dubliners or The Stranger taught us that ordinary prose can be artful, that mundane life stories can be made interesting, and that plots are sometimes secondary, or even unnecessary. The tenets of today’s default aesthetic come from such a misguided attachment to these lessons in style, and therefore every life needs to be a mundane one, prose must be plain, and plot is only an artificial construction that underlines its own artifice. These are commonplace mistakes, and as a result, I feel as if I have read some version of Markovitz’s book a thousand times. You have, too.

But there’s more! Plots that pingpong as errantly as a narrator’s interests; down-and-outness that is more self-indulgent and pathetic than it is a compelling character trait; descriptions of dalliances that feel more like a reflection of the author’s intermittent horniness than anything coming from the heart. Finally the narrator’s suggestion that he is the only real person, although sometimes he doubts it.

You Don’t Have to Live Like This hits all those marks, and as a result it earns its spot in the lukewarm-to-medium parade of hardcover pablum. But as I put it down, I couldn’t avoid the thought that it could have been a good book.

The story is about one man’s slow pivot to a life in Detroit and the birth of a young people’s commune as the city tries to rebuild. It is actually an interesting concept. And I’ve enjoyed some of the author’s fictionalized accounts of Lord Byron’s life. So what went wrong?

Early on—as in, somewhere in the first few sentences—a writer should have decided whether he’s going to go plot-heavy, or go Lawrence Durrell or Goncharov on everyone’s asses and do away with plot altogether. Only on page 50 did Markovits finally seem to have made this decision.

Why did it take so long? Fifty pages is five New Yorker cover stories. It shouldn’t take the length of five New Yorker cover stories to get to your point. Tolstoy wrote enormous tomes and got to his points faster than this. And these pages aren’t full of elaborate and artful scene-setting, but rather, full of irrelevant waffling and details that are ultimately meaningless. Why do I care that the main character had a childhood obsession with toy soldiers? Origin stories are for Batman. And nothing in the character’s backstory sufficiently informs his behavior, making it even more unnecessary.

There is so much fluff in this book that it actually contains small talk. Don’t subject your reader to small talk. I don’t even want to sit through small talk in my own life, so why am I essentially paying to read a bad version of someone else’s? This book should have started with the drive up to the commune. If that’s the plot, the lede didn’t need to be buried for 50 pages.

Every single event in this book is plausible but somehow ends up feeling totally unrealistic. Even things like commercial transactions feel contrived. This is because Markovits filled out too many tertiary details. Every character description feels like it comes with a preferred sandwich order. One character was introduced as recently divorced—a fact that did nothing but fill in the unnecessary backstory of a character who himself ended up being totally unnecessary. In conversation, a telltale sign of a lie is an overabundance of detail. The truth is a hazy, foggy thing. So when writers go overboard describing the minutiae of a bus ride, it feels fake.

Even the finer brushstrokes of this novel aren’t particularly skillful. For writers, there are two layers to description: surface and incision. While the surface sets the scene, the incisive details are often the things that stick with us for years. These are absent from this book. Instead, we see sentences like Jude was the kind of guy who had an apartment on Park Avenue but didn’t like to let people know it. He was short for his height and a Boar’s Head ovengold on a roll type of guy. And although I wrote this as a joke, I am no longer entirely sure that these sentences don’t also appear somewhere in this novel before Jude disappears for the rest of the book.

These tiny flawed building blocks mean that this book and books like it lack a human dimension. It feels as if it was written by someone more interested in performing the tasks of a writer than actually writing, or relating a story. It reads like a caricature of fiction.

The best part of this novel is a moment when the main character goes up onto the roof of a university building with a girl he likes and smokes cigarettes with her. It’s the only scene in the entire novel where you get the sense that the character has feelings, desires, anxieties. And what a breath of fresh air it is to learn he’s a human being! It’s one of the only scenes where the prose doesn’t match the cadence of G-chat. The compulsion to make a point and communicate themes in every paragraph actually quiets down, and suddenly we see depth, dimension, life. And then on the way down from the roof, Markovits brings us back to earth with a needless description of the door. Why? What purpose did that tiny detail serve? The whole book is full of these, and the truth is, you don’t have to write like this.


Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.