Alexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, is due out soon (July 30) from Knopf. It follows 2011’s You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions), an often lyrical and always tightly plotted and controlled novel. It’s also been the source of some controversy: students from a school in Paris that employed Maksik have claimed that the book is very nearly a memoir, and that the young woman on whom a character in the book is based feels ill-treated by this sequence of events. This has raised a range of ethical questions, perhaps the least evenly addressed of which is to whom does fiction belong? Who has the right to tell a story? It seems to me that Maksik is on firm footing here, at least. The remaining ethical issues aren’t mine to judge.
I don’t know Mr. Maksik. I know the relationship depicted in his book only through a combination of hearsay and fiction. It’s seldom wise to trust either of those as a depiction of actual events. That said, some version of those events appears to have happened. In a recent interview with Guernica, his comments suggest that he was prepared for the controversy. “What happened in Paris was never a secret. I lost my job, a job I loved, in a very public way.” What I can say with considerably more confidence is that the relationship depicted is complex and troubling. It’s to Maksik’s credit that he doesn’t flinch in the face of that complexity.
The idea that Maksik presents Will as admirable, let alone heroic, is either naïve or dishonest, and quite possibly both. Will falls well short of the lofty expectations students have of him on a number of occasions, and in their presence, no less. He grasps at a way to remake those expectations, and loses the respect and trust of at least three students depicted in the book, Mazin, Ariel and to an extent, Colin, who he’d won over in spite of early resistance. The actual aggrieved former students appear to have read with an eye on events as they knew them and little to no attention to the subtlety with which Maksik builds character in the novel. Will appears to be a man bobbing in the waves to those around him, but it gradually becomes apparent that he’s on the verge of drowning, that for all his charisma and energy in the classroom, his life lacks a center.
In fact I have very little interest in this controversy, but I would’ve felt irresponsible ignoring it completely. From outside the situation, the novel’s the thing, and on that score Maksik more than delivers. He told Guernica, “I’m happiest when I’m immersed in a moment of sensual experience,” and his prose could serve as Exhibit A:
The quiet of a school emptied for the summer is that of a hotel closed for winter, a library closed for the night, ghosts swirling through the rooms.
There is the quick disintegration. The bell rings and the whole thing explodes into the bright day. You walk into the sunshine, dazed by the light.
If Will is indeed a “life changer” as one colleague calls him early on, it’s perhaps not in the way we initially think, and Maksik is in no way blind to this slippage. He leads his students through discussion after discussion based on rigorous thought, only to leave his most lasting impression via experience, via feeling. I’m not conflating Will and Maksik here; the writer appears simply to have illustrated in fiction a divide which troubled him in life, and to have done so with striking results.
The novel unfolds over the course of several months, from the end of one academic year to a point part of the way through the next. Will’s alienation everywhere but the classroom becomes clear, despite his love for Paris. He’s left his wife in America and gone abroad in search of something, or fled following his parents’ death. He isn’t particularly forthcoming on this point, though the sense gradually emerges that there’s not much more he could usefully say on the subject. He doesn’t fully understand why he’s gone so far, or why he’s pushed that first wife entirely out of his life. These impressions are supplemented by two other voices: Gilad, an outstanding student of Will’s who gets swept up by his presence in the classroom, and Marie, with whom he has an affair, albeit one he seemingly stumbles into rather than one he actively seeks. Gilad is a thoughtful voice, a young mind just making sense of many conflicting threads in his own life. In some respects his eventual disappointment in Will almost feels greater than Marie’s, who confides that she still dreams of Will after he’s gone. As for Marie, Maksik employs her voice judiciously, and he grounds her appeal against her misgivings about her appearance and the superficial nature of friendships with other young women her age. She often seems brave and self-possessed, if also reckless and prone to the sort of overreach we so often are in young love. She’s a straightforward and sometimes tart counterpart to Will, who often feels searching and unsure of himself. The sum of these voices is a picture of a man on the verge of something, though whether that something will be admirable, or even good, is unclear. Maksik handles that ambiguity with great deftness, foregrounds it against the appeal of the physical world around him, a side which often seems to fortify Will more than anything else.
Certainly there are echoes of writers like James Salter (Maksik wrote a brief appreciation of him recently) and Michael Ondaatje, but Maksik balances that lyricism against the other, plainer-spoken voices. Neither does he force the lyrical tone at inappropriate moments. There’s a remarkable degree of control here for a first book, and I dare say Maksik meets the goal he half-seriously remembers in his Salter piece: “a response to…a glut of ironic, glib and self-referential writers who seemed happily disconnected from bodily experience, guided by the notion that thought, not feeling, was the way into art and the way into living.”
Maksik remembers Salter writing to him that, “These natural things don’t ever bring sadness. There may be some melancholy in rain. Snow can make you pensive. A big storm is one of the most thrilling things in life. Sex brings sadness, afterwards, a kind of desolation, but where is the remedy for sex? If I make any argument, which is anyhow only implicit, it is: Try to be a man.” Implicit in Salter’s counsel is the sense that this ultimate goal is not one likely to be achieved without missteps and regrets. I’ll leave aside the question of how well Maksik’s own life corresponds to this dynamic; I know too little of it to comment fairly, and Maksik himself might well note that it’s a work in progress. But You Deserve Nothing is a finely drawn portrait of a man’s life as he approaches a critical checkpoint. Will leaves the school he’s come to love, in disgrace. Yet even then there is hope for renewal, for a fresh chapter: “The moon is a bright crescent in the cold evening sky and somehow I feel ready to live my life again.” It’s an unexpected note, a moment of resilience at a dark time, but to Maksik’s credit it feels inevitable as well. He’s set a high bar for A Marker to Measure Drift, but something tells me he’ll clear it with room to spare.