thu 14/11/2019

Benjamin Markovits: Christmas in Austin review – Essinger family reunion | reviews, news & interviews

Benjamin Markovits: Christmas in Austin review – Essinger family reunion

Benjamin Markovits: Christmas in Austin review – Essinger family reunion

A flawed but ambitious follow-up to ‘A Weekend in New York’

Benjamin Markovits© Caroline Maclean

Paul Essinger has quit life as a professional tennis player and retired to his native Texas where, over the course of seven days, he and his extended family are due to spend Christmas at his parents’ family home. This is the straightforward premise underpinning Christmas in Austin, the second offering from Benjamin Markovits’s Essinger novels, set approximately two years after both A Weekend In New York (2018) and the US Open tournament which brought about its close. Paul lost that first-round tie, and has since lost his girlfriend Dana, in what is the only major change to have occurred prior to the sequel’s opening page. But she’s been invited for the holiday, too. Now the headline ex-pair must navigate “a sense of occupying familiar roles”, and the considerable uncertainty it entails.

Markovits has transposed onto this novel his trademark ear for natural conversation and microscopic attention to detail, producing an astute account of the complexities of human behaviour and emotion. This manifests, at times, in the exceptional precision of his metaphors – such as the feeling of anger, which shifts onto new targets “like something spilled”. Elsewhere, it shows in his openness to that which is vague and indeterminate. In one instance, Dana privately wishes Paul to have an affair “because it would suggest some reasonable ambition or desire on his part, to live a kind of life she could recognise, to make up for whatever was missing in their own relationship, which she could maybe address, in one way or another, after the inevitable upset and recrimination and heartbreak of finding out.”

Benjamin Markovits Christmas in AustinDana’s remarks are typical of an author who seeks to expose a certain truth about ourselves: that people “are hard to describe”. The earlier novel shared this purpose, but Christmas in Austin represents a more ambitious undertaking. Markovits allows formerly peripheral characters to move within the novel’s main purview and the scope of his contemplation to expand. We find, in Liesel’s publication of her German father’s war letters, or Dana’s passion for photography, an anxious need to contain, to fix in motion a present and a past that have already begun to recede, cast as they are against the flux of an American city “where history is not particularly a burden”. Likewise the creeping maturity of the Essinger grandchildren, whose breastfeeding, iPads and petty rivalries show them as the younger, innocent alter egos of their watchful parents.

Where the novel runs into trouble, however, is in the fact that despite flashes of piqued suspense and a few moments of intensity, the drive required to sustain its readers’ attention simply isn’t there. Instead our intrigue shifts, not without impediment, from one minor incident to the next. Cal, the child of Paul and Dana, is an example. In the absence of any lengthy passages to set out his point of view, the young boy’s mysterious illness and magnetic attraction to Ben, his older cousin, acquires what feels like a cryptic significance. But this comes at a cost. Markovits compromises on the honest and granular psychological exploration that otherwise marks out him, and his novel, as unique.

Blame for this rests firmly with character. Outmoded and predictable, all of the Essingers are woefully middle-class, but the female figures feel particularly clichéd. Whereas Paul and Nathan each pursue professional careers, with countless paragraphs and plot-lines (a whole novel, in Paul’s case) dedicated to their thoughts and exploits, their sister Susie has culled her promising academic career to become a full time mother, and their youngest sibling Jean has fallen for her soon-to-be (now that he’s ready) divorced male employer. The novel is not blind to this – rather, Markovits is at pains to shed light on how misogyny is internalised. So it is that Jean’s “top forty” attractiveness has “done the job”, and Bill has the mental capacity to recognise “an attractive middle aged woman” amid the most inappropriate of circumstances. But neither his internal self-chastisement (“you’re a foolish person, he thought”) nor the token inclusion of a few pushy males appropriately compensates for an absence of genuine female characters endowed with the capacity to exist beyond sexual and romantic relationships.

Christmas in Austin has its gifts, and thanks to the remarkable concision with which the author is able to re-tell the Essingers’ considerable backstory it functions, perhaps more effectively, as a stand-alone. Still, Markovits seems ultimately caught between his loyalty to Paul and intimation towards a family drama of greater scale. Without proper development, detail can only do so much. His characters might speak in a manner that sounds real enough – but as for what they have to say? We’ve heard it all before.

@danielbaksi

all of the Essingers are woefully middle-class, but the female figures feel particularly clichéd

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Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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