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Detroit is still breathing

The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant - review.

The Last Days of Detroit: Motor Cars, Motown and the Collapse of an Industrial Giant
Mark Binelli
Bodley Head, 336pp, £20

Over the past few years the city of Detroit – once a titan of American industry and proud symbol of modernity, now teetering towards bankruptcy – has found itself the subject of a stream of articles, books, photography exhibitions, TV news exposés and documentaries. In his ambitious new book, The Last Days of Detroit, Mark Binelli sets out to investigate the “new obsession” with the Motor City and what it might foretell, from the parachuting doom-and-gloom journalists eager to pronounce the city’s death knell to the surprising migration of new arrivals – artists and other bohemian types, land speculators, “green” entrepreneurs. After all, he writes, “Who doesn’t want to see the future?”

In coverage of the book in the US, Binelli has routinely been referred to as a Detroit native, but for those of us from the area, calling someone raised in suburban Detroit (as I was) a “native” can be fighting words. The historically charged relationship between the city and its suburbs and its sharp racial divide (which is among the country’s starkest) doesn’t just undergird every local issue, it is every issue – a dynamic Binelli articulates in the book but seldom in relation to his own vantage point. Several times he comes close to suggesting that his family’s Italian heritage gives him some kind of connection to the experience of disenfranchised Detroiters. He grew up close to Detroit, yes, but the metaphorical distance between the city and its hostile suburbs is immense, treacherous.

To write the book, however, Binelli lived nearly three years in Detroit proper. Growing up in buffered proximity to Detroit’s dramatic decline and residing there intermittently to write the book seems to heighten the sense of puzzled, face-to-glass spectatorship. In reality, it’s unclear how much time he spent there, as he refers at one point to “dividing” his time between New York and Detroit. And, in a telling passage, Binelli notes that so-called “ruin porn”, fetishising the city’s glamorous decay, isn’t limited to “outsiders” – among his “friends and acquaintances” gourmet dinner parties were held in abandoned buildings, which speaks volumes about his circle during his time there.

That is not to say that only a lifelong Detroiter is capable of writing a book that seeks to consider Detroit’s status as the most dramatic example of a dead or dying city and the ways residents are trying to fashion a rebirth. But, as he surveys scheming auto execs, outhustled union reps, under-resourced firefighters, scruffy artists and agrarians, earnest school officials and guileful politicians, his analysis is consistently weighed down by an outsider’s love of symbol and a narrative journalist’s love of the Meaningful Vignette. This means the book feels like a collection of articles, never quite cohering into a larger argument. One gets the feeling that the textural details – the abandoned blocks, the bare prairies, the casual horror of crime – interest Binelli far more than the development of an overarching idea.

Inevitably, the accumulation of vignettes, however well-crafted, begin to feel repetitive and wearying. The quality of sameness proves a point – even the most earnest of efforts meets with inevitable disappointment – but, in the absence of a larger thesis, where does that point get him?

This drumbeat of dismal ironies becomes numbing and even begins to feel artificial because well into the book and into Binelli’s tenure in Detroit he continues to play the part of an ingénue in his own adventures. For instance, he talks about his surprise at arriving in a courtroom to observe a murder trial and finding no other reporters present. “Apparently the crime wasn’t quite extraordinary by Detroit standards,” he notes. “What did you have to do around here to get some ink?” At this point in the book, his surprise feels distinctly disingenuous.

And yet, perhaps with the audacity of hope that characterises the recent “gold rush” to “refound” Detroit, by the final quarter of Binelli’s book a change is afoot, a cumulative effect that sneaks up on him, almost in spite of himself. The dark sense that even the best of intentions come to naught starts to fade in the face of a kind of optimism. Indeed, the very tool – the telling vignette – that limits the book’s argumentative promise ultimately proves critical to Binelli’s own selfrevelation, making for the book’s most winning moment. “It happened gradually, on the level of anecdote,” he writes. “I caught myself noticing and relishing [anything that] in aggregate (or perhaps viewed through lenses with the proper tinting) couldn’t help but make you feel like Detroit’s luck was turning”. Indeed, what he’s realising here, it seems, are the ways in which all cities are projections, with Detroit functioning as the blank screen on which we view ourselves, our fears, our hopes – the way we view our own self-created problems, with over-optimism, denial and refusal of responsibility. At some point, he decided to embrace a kind of “magical thinking” and so the picture itself changed.

In his conclusion, Binelli has not an epiphany exactly but a delicious bit of canny self-awareness, a sort of meta-critique of the book’s weaknesses. He writes: “It would be easy to end this book on a different note. Any number of the city’s grisly headlines could be plucked and highlighted, and not unrepresentatively, either. But if I did that, it would only be to make sure you understand I’m not a soft touch. The truth is, my optimism is growing tenacious. I couldn’t say why.” One wishes he would try. Here, of course, is a ripe opportunity for Binelli to explore his own connection to place, or, more widely, to that intensely American brand of blind faith in the power of the comeback, but he refuses.

There is a certain kind of meaning to be gleaned from that refusal, however. Ultimately, Binelli is unable to answer his own questions about Detroit’s future, its meaning. Instead, there’s an almost wilful refusal to do so, to “decide”, to wrap up Detroit in a neat and tidy (and potentially foreboding) package. In the final pages, he even seems more willing to let his stories have ragged edges. The tang of authenticity that comes from not using a vignette to illustrate an idea but to let it breathe, twist, turn. To allow for the messiness of life, to permit “second acts” and untidy reversals.

You leave the book with no answers, no clear line, not even a set of possible futures. But you may feel something akin to Binelli’s eyes-half-shut optimism. It’s as if he’s saying to us, after countless tours through abandoned edifices that come to stand in for the city: “This building isn’t abandoned at all.” It’s filled with people, stories, history, confusion, disappointment, hope, aspiration, belief. It’s in the wood, the tiles, the rafters. It lives still and you can hear its heart pumping.

Megan Abbott is the author of several novels, the most recent of which to be published in the UK is “The End of Everything” (Picador, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide