Swans Commentary » swans.com December 3, 2012  



Going, Going, Gone: Jeffrey Eugenides's Detroit


by Peter Byrne





"To qualify as a racist you don't have to go to the extreme of slurring, stereotyping or discriminating against people of another race. All you have to do, as I realized on that autumn morning in 1995, is feel completely disconnected from them. All you have to do is look at those people in a kind of almost scientific surprise, as I looked at the African-Americans I passed in the streets of L.A. in the days after the Simpson verdict, and realize you have been passing them by in just this way, for months, for years at a time. They were here all along, thinking what they think now, believing what they now believe, and somehow you failed to notice."
—Michael Chabon, The New York Times, September 30, 2012.


(Swans - December 3, 2012)   Detroit, Lisa D'Amour's play, has made it out of Chicago to London and New York. But the play isn't about the one-time "Motor City." D'Amour who likes symbols (a critic found hers "clunky"), needed one to denote the evisceration of the middle classes (not to go one cliché further and say, "of the American dream"). Her characters are on the psychic skids in the suburbs of a shrinking city. She doesn't ever name the place, but grabbing for a title to her play her knee jerked and she came up with Detroit.

Maybe D'Amour had browsed those Internet slideshows that for years now have been recording Detroit's decay. The city's demise has become something of an art form. One day for sure the last slide of all will show only an empty landscape. A lone traveler in the downdraft from Canada -- perhaps a TV archeologist -- will survey the bleak terrain pierced here and there by petrified chassis. With a pained smile he will refer to grown-over Machu Picchu in Peru or to Palmyra buried in Syrian sand.

"Ruin porn" has also made for a glut of picture books. Detroit Disassembled has been likened to Piranesi's eighteenth century prints of Roman ruins. Another author wastes no words and goes directly to the point with Ruins of Detroit. Even the French have tapped this market with Detroit Ville Sauvage. Documentary films on Detroit are now legion. Nothing is more photogenic than a city's dance of death. Take your pick from, Requiem for Detroit, Redefining Dreamland, Diamond in the Rough, Burn, Mobile Homestead and more. No surprise that as with Henry Ford, its patron saint, we get a good dose of moralizing about a place that began by murdering Indians, went on to squeeze profit from impoverished Southern blacks, and eventually reached a climax of suicidal greed. The latest film report isDetropia by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. It's Sundance fodder, billed as "oddly beautiful" and "a cautionary tale for the nation."

The best way around the traffic jam of Detroit film sermons is Our How-To Guide for making a hardscrabble, gritty, post-industrial documentary about Detroit by Dustin Dwyer on the Changing Gears Web site. The Kit recommends an opening shot: "An abandoned building sits desolate in the morning light. Tufts of yellow grass sprout up among the cracked concrete and bent steel. The grass blades wave weakly with the wind, as if in surrender." Three acts are suggested: 1. Paris of the Midwest, 2. The Post-Apocalyptic Hell-Scape, 3. A Glimmer of Hope. A note adds, "Don't worry if most of the people you interview are white. Young white people who want to rebuild Detroit are totally in right now."

The English writer Iain Sinclair said a documentary "in its present debased form" was "not a journey of discovery but the justification of a script- approved argument, laissez-faire accumulations of meaningless evidence or the personality-led essay. Print journalism with jump-cuts. The world is explained (censored) as it is revealed, with language reduced to the function of cement -- holding together disparate elements."

What Lisa D'Amour, Dustin Dwyer, and Iain Sinclair have in mind sounds very much like fiction. The urbanist James Donald agrees: "Our experience of the real -- specifically, the real of the city -- is always imagined,...poetic." On our way to Detroit, then, why not take a road that avoids all those potholed documentaries and drive straight on for consultation to a novelist? Jeffrey Eugenides, born in the city, is there waiting for us. His three novels show him trying to get away from Detroit but finding it a struggle.

The Virgin Suicides (1993) fixed on 1970s adolescence in suburban Grosse Pointe. The Marriage Plot (2011) looked at young adults in the early 1980s, and almost severed the Detroit connection. It was between these two, in his best novel, Middlesex of (2002), that Eugenides got deeply into his "real of the city."

The Virgin Suicides enquires into the self-inflicted deaths of five teenage sisters. The boys who knew them get together a quarter of a century later, in middle age, to review the devastating events. The storytelling is in their hands with help from other voices in the community. The result is impressive and original, a choral attempt to sort out fantasy from reality. Though revealing much about local life, the chorus inevitably fails to explain the deaths. A suicide can have many reasons and some of them will always remain unknown. The resident psychiatrist, delving into the girls' motives, mentions, among these, "historical malaise." The novel will hint at just what this unease might be. A group of men in the early 1990s looking back at their Detroit suburb as it was in the 1970s will give us their version of its history.

Grosse Pointe was a gated community that had no need to erect gates. Money and unwritten laws did the job. Southern Europeans, Jews, African-Americans, and other undesirables knew better than to apply. If they did, the real estate agents could make transactions too difficult to pursue. The small city had its own class system, of course. The bigwigs of the automobile industry built their mansions on beautiful Lake St. Clair where they mimicked the manners of East Coast "old money," at times even aping a British accent. They sometimes relented and shared their private schools with an awed medley of professional and business people who lived away from the waterfront.

Looking back, the enquirers of 1990 note shadows they missed at the time. The industry that propelled all of them had started to make Lake St. Clair a sewer. The top executives who frolicked on it in their pleasure crafts had lost a grip on the international automobile market. One maverick resident used to count the holes in the roads and go on about "the end of empire." In hindsight, opinion changed: "More and more, people forgot about the individual reasons why the girls may have killed themselves, the stress disorders and insufficient neurotransmitters, and instead put the deaths down to the girls' foresight in predicting decadence." During all of The Virgin Suicides, Dutch elm disease destroys one after another the lofty elms of the class-walled, dormitory city. Shorn of its foliage, the essential fragility of Grosse Pointe is frighteningly exposed.

Of Eugenides's three novels, Middlesex stands out for its several levels and wide scope. It's the story of a family of Greek immigrants who settle in Detroit. Their saga accompanies another that follows the progress of a recessive gene through several generations. The first family arrivals, an incestuous brother and sister, bring it with them from war-torn Turkey of 1922. The hapless grandchild of this couple, a hermaphrodite -- Calliope, eventually Cal -- is the author's narrative voice. Cal's account of his life as a misfit is gripping, enlightening, and thoroughly entertaining. From a dozen angles Eugenides illuminates his profound interest in gender identity and sexual ambiguity.

In what the author calls his "Midwestern Epidaurus," Detroit is only background, like the canvas in a photographer's studio. But the fact that Cal's (and Eugenides's) view of the city is off the cuff, as it were, tells us what the white middle class thought of the place in unselfconscious moments. The novel begins with a lively run through of facts that can be culled from any encyclopedia: the novelty of assembly lines in the 1920s, Henry Ford's big brotherly hold on everything, the dynamism and zest of beginnings. By 1932 the magnates of the auto industry managed to get Detroit labeled "The City of Trees." They built the splendid Detroit Institute of Arts where they put the Mexican artist Diego Rivera to work adding a mythological sheen to their investments:

On scaffolding he sat on a folding chair, sketching the great work: the four androgynous races of humankind on the upper panels, gazing down on the River Rouge assembly line, where auto workers labored, their bodies harmonized with effort. Various smaller panels showed the "germ cell" of an infant wrapped in a plant bulb, the wonder and dread of medicine, the indigenous fruits and grains of Michigan; and way over in one corner Henry Ford himself, gray-faced and tight-assed, going over the books.

The immigrant family of our narrator, Cal, moved quickly through Detroit as its income rose. Cal's grandfather came to his centrally located bar from a home elsewhere. Greek Town couldn't hold Cal's father, whose post-WWII prosperity brought the family to exclusive Grosse Pointe. Personal interaction with blacks, who had migrated in number to Detroit, was limited. For Cal's father it amounted to hoping they would keep away from the family bar, which he now ran. Cal as a child had a fleeting contact with a young black who, emboldened by the civil rights movement, took a militant stance. Cal's father, who sees black progress only as a threat to his property, quickly put an end to any possible friendship.

The fact that Cal almost never comes face to face with African-Americans doesn't prevent him from being obsessed by them. They dominate the story he tells of Detroit. What's striking in his account of the city is how he loses interest in the growth and demise of the auto industry. Automobile brand names may be everywhere in the novel but like those trees along the roads they are never connected to Detroit's collapse. That seems due to something inevitable, geological, a shift in tectonic plates. With discretion Cal keeps from blaming the black community for the city's trouble, but his absorption in its presence suggests just that.

For Cal white Detroiters shared a fear of blacks without knowing much about them. On the eve of the 1967 race riots, Cal's father in tranquil Grosse Pointe slept with a pistol under his pillow. The family spent three days barricaded in their attic watching TV. Cal, and Eugenides with him, remains in two minds about the "riots." (These came two summers after the troubles in Watts and just after the tumult in Newark.) He felt they were more like a revolution. The rioters had stockpiled arms and organized a group of snipers. The police were too aggressive in their preemptive strikes while the National Guard was untrained and trigger happy. When federal troops, including seasoned paratroops, arrived they were inexplicably based in the wrong part of the city. Who lost out in the riots? The family bar, which had little sale value and was doing no business, went up in flames. The considerable insurance money allowed Cal's father to launch his very successful second business career.

Here is Cal on the family owned bar-restaurant:

Over the years the Zebra Room has absorbed the exhalations of its auto worker patrons. The place smelled of their beer and hair tonic, their punch- clock misery, their frayed nerves, their trade unionism. The neighborhood was also changing. When my grandfather had opened the bar in 1933, the area had been white and middle-class. Now it was becoming poorer, and predominantly black. In the inevitable chain of cause and effect, as soon as the first black family had moved onto the block, the white neighbors immediately put their houses up for sale. The oversupply of houses depressed the real estate prices, which allowed poorer people to move in, and with poverty came crime, and with crime came more moving vans.

Cal's vision of black Detroit begins in 1932 with an evocation of Black Bottom, the ghetto containing half a million blacks in twenty-five square blocks. It dated from WWI when the manager of the Packard Motor Company brought, in his words, the first "load of niggers" to the city. Thereafter, as migration increased, the task of the city fathers was to keep the new arrivals penned up. Cal lets himself go in describing the privation and primitive nature of life in the crowded quarter. He sees the inhabitants as "good savages," another species altogether from native and European-immigrant Detroiters. Cal here seems above the fray, apportioning no blame, liberal, intrigued by the exotic nature of the ghetto. What comes across, however, is that the incursion of the untamed in the "Motor City" is one step too far toward the vaunted local melting-pot. The ghetto would perdure until 1950 when it was replaced, Detroit style, by a freeway system. "By the 1970s," says Cal, "in the no-tax-base, white flight, murder-capital Detroit of the Coleman Young administration, black people could finally live wherever they wanted to. The so called ghetto would become the entire city itself."

Eugenides's family saga lurches into fantasy when he involves Cal's grandmother with the Black Muslims. The mysterious peddler, who would found Temple Number One of what became the Nation of Islam, came to Black Bottom in 1930. For Cal, the Nation's beginnings are a mixture of naivety, charlatanism, and failed commerce in dry goods. Police-manipulated scandal made for a change in direction in 1933. The peddler founder left town under pressure and Elijah Poole became Elijah Muhammad, Supreme Minister of the Nation of Islam. The new emphasis was on buying real estate, not on selling cloth. Headquarters would eventually shift to Temple Number Two in Chicago. In the early 1950s a new minister turned up there by the name of Malcolm X.

In sum, Cal's family experience differs only in degree from what happened in other rust-belt cities where manufacturing died and desegregation was effected only in law, not practice. Detroit's ruin had simply been more dramatic and extreme. Only Cal's hermaphrodite view is unique. He hovers above Detroit, bemused by the Afro-American presence and treating the gradual disappearance of his city like the passage of sand in an hourglass.

Unlike the full-blooded Greek family of Middlesex, Mitchell Grammaticus in Eugenides's third novel, The Marriage Plot, is only half Greek. He too hails from Detroit's Grosse Pointe but has upped stakes and taken root in Ivy League country. His Greek father is nouveau riche and one-dimensionally business-minded with his own plane and a second home in Florida. "Thank God for Ronald Reagan" is his prayer; "he'd never wanted Mitchell to go to college in the East and be ruined by liberals." Thanks to parental money, Mitchell has extracted himself from his parents' sphere. After casting aside immigrant Greek Orthodoxy he slums a while in secularism before returning to religion on a classier level, embellished by travel and a yearning for mysticism. He's a refined humanist and, it can be assumed, very close to the author. After Brown University, Mitchell lands in a 1980s recession. He has the means to travel abroad for a year with a friend, "to sit it out."

The Marriage Plot has two other main characters. Leonard is a brilliant alpha male flawed by manic depression. Madeleine, undecided between the two men, is wrapped up in the Victorian novel. She not only studies but takes refuge in it from the assault of campus postmodernists. Her immersion in nineteenth century storytelling mirrors Eugenides's own strategy as he veers away from the more adventurous form of his previous novels. The Marriage Plot focuses narrowly on academic life and the affluent middle classes.

Eugenides and Mitchell have got Detroit out of their systems. When he returns to summer jobs there as a student, Mitchell finds Detroiters completely alien to himself. To channel his religious feelings into good works, he prefers the glamour of a sojourn with Mother Teresa in Calcutta to his home town's grim streets. In the end he chooses to daydream religiously in a historic Quaker Meeting House in the upmarket part of New Jersey. Eugenides has decided to let what's left of Detroit rot to extinction. He finds his material now between Cape Cod and the flashier part of Manhattan.

Will Detroit survive? Bad news came recently when a huckster launched a T-shirt emblazoned Detroit Lives! In a nation where infrastructure renewal depends on the strength we exert on our bootstraps while donning the right T-shirt, the exclamation point sounds like a death knell.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published December 3, 2012