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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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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis