A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits, Reviewed
Benjamin Markovits’ new novel, A Weekend in New York, does not necessarily mark entirely new ground. We find ourselves in New York (as in his novel Either Side of Winter) following a professional athlete named Paul Essinger (as in Playing Days) as he deals with the coinciding obligations of fatherhood, marriage and family, on the eve of what may be his last major tennis tournament. In the past we have seen Markovits broach these elements of setting and theme with penetrating detail and poignancy. On this occasion, however, the resulting story isn’t quite as satisfying.
Once again, Markovits’ depiction of New York captures the city in its multiplicity, each character responding to it differently. We see New York as vast: the sense of walking its streets, along blocks and barely comprehending where is up or down or where there is some kind of centre. We feel the uncomfortable humidity of August bearing down on us as the novel moves towards its climax. Markovits, too, displays his keen appreciation for the rituals and tests involved in the life of a professional athlete. He pays particular attention to the cruelness of mediocrity, the kind that exists even to those who qualify as an expert. We are witness to the huge gap in talent between the very best and the merely ‘good’ (surely a concern for any competitive writer too). The protagonist, it seems, lives in service to those who are truly exceptional, a stepping stone for better players on their way to their own grander legacies.
As in Either Side of Winter, Markovits tries to capture a collective experience by an examination of individuals within it. The novel does not just focus on Paul Essinger: we are privy to the thoughts of his rueful girlfriend and their small son, his fiercely intelligent siblings and their restless parents too. If it sounds like a lot of characters for a novel taking place over four days that is because it is. Once the family descend on the city, united by the act of watching Paul play in the early rounds of the US Open, the novel does not pause for thought. Instead, we watch as they spend the weekend re-stoking the fires of familiarity. They fall back into old habits, they seek resolution to the same internalised conflicts and insecurities that we might imagine they had as teenagers. Simultaneously, we have Paul’s partner, Dana, watching on; her own relationships with her partner’s siblings and parents developing, their own son being raised in the background. There are elements of the author’s own life here too, as a Jewish, German-American living in London: Paul’s sister is a London based transplant, his mother German, his father an aspirational academic — all of them serving as immigrants in their way.
However, it is also in the broadness of its ambition that the novel finds its undoing. It is hard not to think that maybe it would have been better if it hadn't made such a commitment to a democratic coverage of its characters over such a short space of time. In his previous novels Markovits’ prose was particularly effective at showing the passing of time: how an attitude becomes weathered, lived in, how easy it can feel to go along with the force of a long-suffered habit and how eventually the moments of real change don’t always present themselves that dramatically. To do all that over four days is a challenge. Within the canon of social realism that Markovits evokes, tiny observations are supposed to act beyond themselves as signallers of bigger things: a damaged relationship, a changing of a state of mind or the passing of the point of no return. Over a weekend, however, these little observations are so heaped on as to become almost meaningless. We just have to take a character’s word for it when they claim that they’ve noticed something different in the way someone holds their child, we haven’t been there for the months or years to see it. Indeed, there is a moment where Paul Essinger seems to be commenting to the author on this fact; deriding himself for holding up the loading of the dishwasher as “some precious detail.” You’re not wrong, we want to tell him.
The novel may have been improved simply by focusing on one character, rather than gifting us with insight into six of them. If it had been Paul the novel could have proved an interesting depiction of failed athletic ambition and its conflict with romantic and family relationships. If it had focused on Paul’s partner Dana it might have served as a book about isolation, motherhood and competitive in-laws. Instead, A Weekend in New York isn't really a story, it’s a gracefully written collection of scenes, an intriguing troupe of characters, with nothing particular to focus on.