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.