Sometimes what’s wrong with a novel is also what makes it impressive, and it seems unfair to criticise a book for achieving what it intends to. Nevertheless, Benjamin Markovits’s A Weekend in New York is frustrating.
Over four days, an extended family descends on New York City to watch one of their own, Paul Essinger – nominally the protagonist, but this novel may not have one – play his first-round match at the US Open. Ranked No 82, nearing the end of his career, Paul hardly expects to win the Open (betting shops rank the odds at 1,200:1). Yet readers won’t get in the mood for Wimbledon. There’s not much tennis in this book. With this cast, there isn’t room.
Liesel, the matriarch, is a German-born writer. Her husband Bill Essinger is a Jewish economics professor who grew up outside New York. The couple has long lived in Austin, Texas, where they raised four children. The oldest, Nathan, a Harvard law professor, is married to Clémence, a French-Canadian journalist. They have two girls, Margot and Julie. The second-oldest, Suzie, an academic in Hartford retired to full-time motherhood, is married to a British-born academic, David; they have two sons, William and Ben. Paul (the tennis player) is married to Dana, an attractive photography dilettante; they have a toddler, Cal.
Liesel and Bill stay in the empty apartment of Dana’s rich ex-husband, Michael. The youngest, Jean, is a London-based assistant to married-with-children documentary producer Henrik, with whom she’s having an affair. When Bill visits his sister Rose, he gets the lowdown on Rose’s daughter Judith, Judith’s son Michael, current husband, and ex, Alex. Meanwhile, Liesel regales us with tales of both her own parents, and Bill’s parents.
Over four days we also encounter Marcello, Paul’s tennis coach; Dana and Paul’s neighbour Amanda Frankel, their cleaner Inez, and Dana’s friend Ireney; a Mrs Mitroglou, an old woman whose apartment Bill views; two estate agents; Bill’s Aunt Ethel; Luigi, Paul’s warm-up partner; Karen Bartkowski, Liesel’s Village Voice interviewer, and Karen’s friend Pam; Bill’s cousin Seymour; and last but not least, a German shepherd named Tinker. Thus my jaw dropped when, in the final dinner, with most of the unwieldy clan assembled in an Italian restaurant, the author squeezed in yet another chair for Fritz Kohl, an utterly extraneous South African friend of Bill’s. Oh, and Suzie’s pregnant – just in case we’re hoping for a sequel with even more characters.
Such high population density is challenging for authors, but also for readers, who wear out. Giving the parents and all four children roughly equal time results in a complete lack of emotional focus, further blurred by multiple points of view, which often switch mid-scene. Imagine a party so loud and crowded that you leave never having had one striking, memorable conversation.
This diffusion is exacerbated by the plot, of which there is intentionally little. Bill humours his wife’s vague ambitions to move to New York by viewing two apartments. We visit Rose in Yonkers. There are walks. Children are put to bed. But this is fiction in the round – more sculptural than linear. Short periods of time are repeated from different perspectives, creating a running-in-place sensation, and killing momentum. It’s always time for lunch.
Given that Markovits was born and partially educated in the US before settling in London, it’s perplexing why his ear for American vernacular isn’t sharper. British phrases are scattered throughout the text. Having spent her adult life in the US, Liesel would never say, “It’s not fair on Dana”, but “It’s not fair to”. Americans don’t say “hob”, but “range”. New York City water does not leave London’s limescale. After living in the UK, Jean just might call a pacifier a “dummy”, but any American she was talking to would think she meant “idiot”. Americans eat “fish sticks”, not “fish fingers”. They say “toward”, not “towards”, “homey”, not “homely”, which in the US means unattractive. American tights don’t “ladder” but “run”. Yanks never feel “shy of” an aunt, but “shy with”. And I really throw up my hands when an American gets into a “lift”.
Less pernickety? In flashbacks, Markovits constantly yanks American characters over to Britain. There’s abnormally much UK in this book for an American story about an American family.
Yet Markovits – a Granta Best of Young British Novelists alumnus whose books include a three-part fictionalised biography of Byron – crafts many thoughtful, expressive passages. When Paul’s parents watch their son play on TV, “It removed him slightly from them, from their sphere… It took something away.” Bill worries that Paul has resigned himself to his middling status: “That’s the problem with failure. At some point it requires an acceptance of failure; you have to make internal adjustments.”
The author astutely observes the jarring transition from talking to relatives on the phone to seeing them face-to-face. In a wonderfully appalling scene, Nathan calculates his brother’s statistical chances of winning the Open, based on his record of beating (or not) Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer: very low indeed.
But then, as Paul notes, “When you’re an athlete your chances in life become public property.” Too true: whatever position you assume in a family argument, “you were also taking somebody’s side against someone else”.
Clearly, the concept is to assemble a whole complicated family in one place, to constrain events to the small-scale, and to exercise authorial egalitarianism. But while good parents give no one child preferential treatment, novelists are better off having favourites. Paul Essinger might have made an excellent main character, if only he’d been given the space.
Lionel Shriver’s novels include “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. Her most recent book is the short-story collection “Property” (The Borough Press)
A Weekend in New York
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 13 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?