All lazy book reviews are essentially the same: they reflect a reviewer’s inability, or perhaps refusal, to fully engage with the writer’s project on the book’s own terms. Lazier still is to not discuss the book but instead the author, to review not the project, to paraphrase John Updike, but the reputation.
Recently, I read Alexander Maksik’s 2011 debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, heralded by The New York Times for its “dazzling clarity and impressive philosophical rigor.” After the strong reviews and well-deserved attention, the online magazine Jezebel claimed that Maksik had allegedly based the story on his own experience as a teacher in Paris and his relationship with a student. Amazon and Goodreads readers retracted their stars and updated their reviews to show their disgust and moral outrage. I don’t mean to defend or attack Maksik’s alleged personal choices. But as a reader, a novelist, and a critic, I simply do not care what they were. These “violations of confidence,” as Jezebel noted them, should remain in Maksik’s private life, between himself and the young woman with whom he was involved. They unfortunately became literary gossip. They should never have become part of the literary conversation.
But of course they did.
This summer, Maksik released his second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift. This beautiful novel follows Jacqueline, a young refugee who, having fled Charles Taylor’s Liberia, finds herself homeless on the Greek island of Santorini. The novel weaves Jacqueline’s present life on the island with her past life in Liberia. Though the reviews were also strong, many reviewers, from Norman Rush for the NYTBR to John Freeman for the Boston Globe, felt compelled to mention not only the first book but also the real-life affair. Claudia La Rocco, an astute dance critic, reviewed Marker for the New York Times. Her anger about the book, or perhaps really about Maksik the writer, was clear from her opening.
La Rocco opens her review not by mentioning Maksik’s first book but of the scandal surrounding it, and when she finally gets to the book she is reviewing, her tone is incredulous: “Would a woman suffering from diarrhea, chronic dehydration, and malnutrition really be able to tramp around a sun-blitzed island, hiding in abandoned buildings, under trees and in a cave, with only a few fainting spells to show for it? Would she be so concerned with questions of beauty and choice?”
First, the premise of the book, of any book, is asking for a willful suspension of disbelief. That said, Jacqueline is not concerned with questions of “beauty and choice,” a reductive and unsupported claim, but of survival and staying under the radar. When she does allow her mind to drift toward the mundane it is a clear repression of the horrific memories that are threatening to rise to the surface and destroy her.
This, though, was my interpretation (I reviewed the book for the San Francisco Chronicle), and not everyone will share it. Fair enough. More disconcerting here is the way Maksik is first attacked for writing what he knows and then for writing what he does not, for attempting to “embody a character so divorced from his own experiences.” The review reads like a personal condemnation of Maksik, from his choice of subject to what the reviewer sees as his emotional avoidance; it amounts to a list of grievances. La Rocco also notes that Jacqueline “comes to resemble the protagonist of You Deserve Nothing, Will Silver, a damaged loner adrift in a haze of existential malaise.”
It’s clear that Maksik is interested in exploring isolation, loneliness, and the often devastating human desire for connection. Though I found the comparison between Will Silver and Jacqueline to be a bit of a stretch, it is indeed an interesting one, so I was surprised when La Rocco used this parallel as if exposing some little dirty secret, as if Maksik were somehow cheating the system.
Most writers would assert that certain philosophical obsessions consume their work, even if expressed in different ways. One of the pleasures of reading through an author’s oeuvre is to trace the way, say, Ian McEwan’s “malevolent intrusions,” as noted by Zadie Smith, play out again in and again in different settings and times and with different characters. This is not the same thing as writing the same novel over and over but a testament to the fact that some ideas might preoccupy a writer for a lifetime. This is the beauty of art: the intersection of our own particular way of being in the world with the way the world is.
Will Silver of You Deserve Nothing is a teacher at an international school in Paris. His tenure at the school was an escape from, or the delaying of, grief. The recent loss of his parents and his abandonment of his wife shape who he is: unable to love yet with a great nostalgia for it. Once Will understands that Marie, the student with whom he has been involved, has not been discreet, he anticipates the pain that will surely come. A beautiful, palpable tension emerges from what we know is inevitable. Marie has fantasies of domestic bliss: a baby, or coming up the stairs to the apartment when they are old, but Will doesn’t allow himself such delusions. His sadness shows he knows from the start that it will not end well.
And yet he chooses it anyway. This, to me, was heartbreaking and honest. The writer Rivka Galchen has said that character is “one’s very particular way of being wrong,” a brilliant insight into character and fiction as a whole. And You Deserve Nothing, though far more complex than just presenting ideas of “right” and “wrong,” does just that. Several acts of cruelty and inhumanity, whether acts of random violence or domestic abuse, deep-seated bigotry, or the aggression we inflict upon societies through war, go unpunished, and the book offers a provocative comment on our own selective moral outrage.
I admit I lose patience with the “I’m helpless to young female beauty” of the Rothian variety (though I did find beauty and truth in The Dying Animal, say, as well) or the sense of entitlement and power that strangely emerges from this hand-biting helplessness of male desire. I try not to dismiss books based on their premises or subject matter alone. But I didn’t find You Deserve Nothing to be overly familiar. And even if I did, as Adam Langer noted in the New York Times, it is “so rivetingly plotted and beautifully written that you forget its shopworn premise.”
The reviews of You Deserve Nothing, in fact, were excellent. Until we began to discuss what should never have been discussed in the context of criticism.
The role of the critic is not to argue over what is real but what has been created. If there are writers who don’t exorcise their demons and fears when they write, their failures and their shortcomings, I don’t know them. Most novelists will admit that bits of ourselves, some thinly veiled and some deeply so, are present in all our characters, both those who resemble us and those who don’t.
A novel is an act of the imagination. To read it as anything but is a failure of the contract we enter when we engage with a fictional world. In his essay “What Is Real Is Imagined,” Colm Toibin writes: “The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known… The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.”
As critics our duty is to uphold that. Literature is not a recording of an experience but the creation of one. Fiction creates its own truths, its own histories. To paraphrase Auden on poetry, it’s “a way of happening, a mouth.” When we read we are creating a map in our minds of the book, and as reviewers we are to act as cartographers of this imagined space. A review is really a mapping of one’s intimate conversation with a book. It does not mean our personal tastes and perceptions about the world will not enter this conversation — they certainly will, and they will affect our experience with that novel and the ideas it brings forth.
But when as reviewers we ignore the created experience and instead focus on the author and his or her “right” to create, or not create, we never even enter the conversation. Nothing is revealed. The map is blank and therefore useless.
Can we write about anything we want, as fiction writers? I say, absolutely. But we have to make those difficult artistic decisions ourselves, to consider our material and the best way to approach it. A good review should be grappling with the complexities set forth by the work in question and not treating the author’s choice of material as suspect. The reviewer should ask: how is this done, what has been attempted, has it been delivered with freshness or skill or compelling insight? A lazy review is cruel, and a cruel review is lazy; both stem from a lack of imagination and empathy. Like cruelty itself.
And what to make of the responsibility of the reviewer? Can we say anything we want? Let’s look at John Updike’s oft-quoted advice on reviewing:
Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
It seems rather obvious, no? To review the reputation is to ignore or simply discredit the spell entirely. It’s intellectually lazy and boring. We may have opinions about an author, certainly, but we should not have an agenda before even reading the book or writing the review. If we do, perhaps we should reconsider accepting the assignment. When we attack the author for his or her material, our approach is single-minded: not criticism but propaganda. We undermine the value of the enterprise that we as reviewers should be elevating: the conception of art and a discussion about not only what the art is doing but how it is constructed.
In her 1959 Harper’s essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” Elizabeth Hardwick lamented that “a Sunday morning with the book reviews is often a dismal experience.” The tagline of Hardwick’s Harper’s piece reads: “The fates of authors and publishers — not to mention the reading public — depend on book reviews, but who reviews the reviewers?”
It’s an important question and a relevant conversation to continue, particularly now, with the proliferation of online reviewing. But those of us who are charged with talking about books professionally should work to maintain professional standards as to how we talk about them. Book reviewing need not be a laudatory, effusive enterprise, and I’m grateful that it’s not. In fact, often the most celebratory reviews expose the flip side of the same problem: the replacement of a critical engagement with literature with our emotions about and perceptions of the writer. Alexander Maksik’s case is not representative of all book reviewing but is representative of a certain ad hominem approach, neither rigorous nor intellectual. Investigations into whether we’d want to be friends with a book’s narrator or whether the author experienced some of the story’s events might be entertaining conversations to have over a round of beers. But such is chatter, not criticism.
Reviews like La Rocco’s do nothing more to deepen the literary conversation than do the scores of many amateur “reviews” on Amazon or Goodreads (to wit: many of these reviewers took back the five stars they awarded to You Deserve Nothing after Jezebel’s claim), and though an open democratic forum about literature is not without value it makes professional, sophisticated, rigorous book reviewing all the more crucial. When we begin a review, we should ask, what will this bring into the cultural conversation, and what we are doing for the world of art and ideas when we do?
Alexander Maksik told Dwyer Murphy of Guernica in a recent interview, “I’m terrified of writing the same novels over and over again.” It’s an admirable sentiment given the reception critics afforded his first novel, You Deserve Nothing. He might easily have returned to the same furrow, made adjustments, perhaps even improvements, and savored another round of approval. Instead his new book, A Marker to Measure Drift, stands at a great remove from his debut and suggests Maksik’s stance on rewriting the same book repeatedly was more than an idle remark.
In A Marker, Maksik gives us Jacqueline, a young woman who is the only survivor of a privileged Liberian family, now displaced by the country’s civil war. We encounter her on a Greek island, in need of food and shelter, and at pains to confront the terrible events not so far behind her. It’s a risky proposition for Maksik, an American writer whose first book centered on an affair between a teacher and a student at an international high school in Paris. He welcomes another layer of risk by opting for a pared-down prose, often far from the lyrical style he employed in You Deserve Nothing, a choice evident from the outset:
Now it was night.
Jacqueline hadn’t eaten since the flattened chocolate bar she’d found on the step outside the pharmacy.
God’s will, her mother said.
The fortune of finding food when it was most needed. Just when she didn’t think she could stay upright any longer, here was food.
The writing is clear and economical, and to Maksik’s credit it never competes with Jacqueline’s ongoing plight. Add a plot so tightly focused on her immediate hardships and the unbreakable link to her mother, whose voice comes to her in memory with advice both wanted and unwanted, and Maksik seems to have set up an absolute gauntlet for himself.
James Salter — a writer Maksik admires and who at times seems to be one of his literary forbears — has noted his love for short novels, “books which were brief but every page of which was exalted…It is like the middle distances for a runner. The pace is unforgiving and must be kept up to the end.” A Marker to Measure Drift aspires to inclusion in this rarefied category. In the same Guernica interview, Maksik mentions cutting 30,000 or 40,000 words about a French-American couple on the way to isolating Jacqueline as the heart of the novel. His initial hesitance to strip away this layer of narration is understandable: it leaves only a young refugee woman, isolated amid tourists. Improbable as it sounds, Maksik works within these strictures and emerges with something stark and essential.
An effort to render the horrors of a civil war, moment by moment and page after page, could easily feel gratuitous and numbing to readers. A Marker to Measure Drift is built instead around the day-to-day realities of Jacqueline’s physical needs, a choice that at first glance appears ill-considered, but Maksik is playing the long game here. The intimacy with Jacqueline’s many small decisions, everything from where to sleep to how she might go about making even a pittance with no legal documentation, gradually pushes all other concerns to the margins. She begins giving foot massages to tourists on the beach — a pound per five minutes at first, later two pounds per. It’s a skill she honed at her sister’s whim, over the span of their childhood together. A nearby cave is home for a time. Later she finds abandoned structures, unfinished construction, and claims them briefly. We remain aware that something awful happened to Jacqueline’s family in Liberia, but Maksik withholds the particulars, releasing hints and glimmers at well-timed intervals. He introduces a few carefully chosen incidents and images, some of them repeatedly. When Jacqueline is on her way out of the country, the car she’s traveling in is stopped by a group of rebels, a ragtag bunch of young men. The smell of their cologne stays with her in memory: “She thought of them passing the bottle around, shaking it onto their palms, slapping it onto the backs of their necks, smoothing it over their cheeks. Like boys preparing for a dance.” These same boys have stretched a man’s intestines across the road to block traffic.
Much is revealed via Jacqueline’s imagined conversations with her mother. The episodes betray tension between the two of them, but her mother generally offers well-intentioned advice. When Jacqueline is studying in England, her mother makes her promise to never return home. When she graduates, her father arranges a job for her in the government, a tourist liaison role, and she accepts it, to her mother’s chagrin. Her father is charismatic and handsome but not, it transpires, such a benign figure. His work as a minister to then-President Charles Taylor and his denial of the seriousness of conditions in the country, of the implications of power changing hands, prove fatal to all in the family but Jacqueline. He maintains a rosy view of the situation even as danger draws near, joking with Jacqueline’s sister:
They are listening to the news of their country in chaos. Government soldiers terrorizing Gbah. Executing men refusing conscription, raping girls as young as eleven, the BBC reports. The LURD rebels closer and closer to Monrovia.
When the power goes out for the fourth time in an hour the sound vanishes and her mother says, “Plug it into Saifa.”
Her father hands her the cord and Saifa fits the plugs into her nostrils.
“Still doesn’t work,” he says. “Must be something wrong with the radio.”
The civil war in Liberia spanned 14 years. It claimed something on the order of a quarter of a million lives. In the aftermath, Charles Taylor was charged with human rights violations by the International Criminal Court in the Hague and sentenced to 50 years in prison. A Marker to Measure Drift stays well clear of these particulars, perhaps because engaging too fully with them would overwhelm any one individual’s story. That is to say, paraphrasing the old saw, that the focus remains on a single tragedy and its consequences rather than a sterile body of statistics.
In fact, Jacqueline’s family tragedy remains an untold story much of the way, to both the reader and the people around her in the novel. By suppressing the details of this one crushing narrative, Maksik foregrounds the power and purpose of storytelling. It’s this great repression that finally drives home how fully Jacqueline is cut off from other people. She’s marginalized due to her refugee status, and a number of interactions demonstrate how far removed her experiences are from those of the people she meets. The name Liberia often meets with blank looks. One couple believes it’s in East Africa, and Jacqueline has to correct them. For a long while, she is wary and resentful of people she encounters, even those who might help her. She lies to them in an effort to save face and maintain distance, but eventually we see her halting progress toward some small familiarity with the waitress who serves her breakfast each day. It’s a poignant sequence, and it builds to a series of tense, startling moments in which Jacqueline bears witness to the horrors her family and her country endured, a retelling which feels harsher still for the fact she unfolds the tale in idyllic surroundings. To say more would be a disservice to Maksik and the reader alike.
Recently Maksik has served as guest editor for Afterword in Canada’s National Post, a task for which he composed four short pieces about different places he lived on the way to establishing himself as a writer. Among his few hundred words about Paris, he points to the period when he first gained confidence in his work. “I discovered what it meant to believe deeply that I was capable of something,” he writes, “without ever once succeeding in doing that thing.” No doubt he still faces obstacles in his work, missteps and uncertainty from day to day. A book in print doesn’t cure all ills. With A Marker to Measure Drift, though, Alexander Maksik’s deep belief proves warranted: he has succeeded.