A Marker to Measure Drift

  • Alexander Maksik
  • Knopf
  • 240 pp.

A Liberian woman’s present is deeply tainted by her past.

Jacqueline arrives on a Greek island with no money, no food and virtually no possessions. She hasn’t had her period in months. Although surrounded by people ­— she’s reached a tourist destination at the height of the season — her only company is the voice in her head: that of her mother, alternately chiding and encouraging.

Much of the first half of Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift is about the daily struggle to survive outside the system — staying hydrated and fed, keeping dry, avoiding the dangers that come from being alone, undocumented and illegal, dodging the thieves and others who would exploit a young woman’s marginalization. Gradually, Jacqueline — JaJa to her mother — finds a dry cave, builds a bed from found materials, earns some money by giving foot rubs to tourists, and accumulates a few small belongings (a sun visor, a tube of lip balm, a flashlight). She is freed from immediate fear, lightens the burden of the present.

Contrary to what one might expect, such freedom is no relief. It becomes clear as Jacqueline undermines her own progress that the heart of the novel is nothing that will happen in the narrative future, but what readers soon understand to be a terrifying past.

This, rather than any traditional plot device, provides the tension at the center of A Marker to Measure Drift: that by bringing her life closer to “normal,” retreating from the brink of starvation, achieving her goals, Jacqueline increases the chance she will be forced to face her memories. Any fulfilled desire — a full stomach, companionship — is a danger, every small achievement a potential prison. Each time Jacqueline seems about to make a friend, she withdraws, seemingly aware that familiarity inevitably brings disclosure — just as her repeated brushes with friendship remind the reader that the human need for society will win out eventually.

The reader gradually learns that Jacqueline is a refugee from Liberia. The emancipated former slaves who settled there following the American Civil War oppressed the indigenous population; the country’s story is therefore one of violence, coups, counter-coups, and warfare. Where other authors employing (some would say exploiting) recent political violence would indulge in guidebook history, Maksik does not, nor does he highlight that these events were often the result of American intervention. There is no information at all about former President Charles Taylor, in whose government JaJa’s father was a minister. These are astute choices: Maksik’s is a character drama, not a roman à these, and its intimacy should not be disrupted.

As if to demonstrate this, Maksik’s prose — pleasant, thoughtful, often dreamy in content — is rarely more than conversational in style:

“She liked the stinging because it was sharp.

“The salt will prevent infection, her mother said.

“She liked her feet against the rough sand and the way the water pulled the sand from beneath her feet.”

That Maksik has been praised by many critics for his great poetry is, more than anything, a testament to how generic most American writing has become, a result of the publishing industry’s stylistic auto-da-fé, quietly burning distinctive prose on a pyre of lowest-common-denominator sales tactics.

The real challenge Maksik puts to readers lies elsewhere: in seeing and accepting the inevitability of horror. Jacqueline’s story will be told before the book ends — and this is no spoiler; readers will know it practically from the first page. To read A Marker to Measure Drift is to wait for the ax to fall. When it does it is, as expected, harrowing and relentless — so much so that we are forced to ask whether fictional soldiers are torturing Jacqueline’s family, or whether Maksik is torturing the reader, and in each case, to what end?

If readers forgive this — and I expect they will — it is because A Marker to Measure Drift also draws portraits of simple but honest kindness, offered in the form of conversation, a free meal, a ride across the island or a hand on a shoulder. In this way Maksik displays both realism and hopefulness about human nature without being unrealistic about either.

Tadzio Koelb’s writing on art and fiction has appeared in number of publications, including The New York Times Book Review, The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian, Art in America, The Literary Review, The New Statesman, and The Jewish Quarterly. His short critical biography of Lawrence Durrell appeared in Scribner’s Sons’ British Writers series, and his translation of André Gide’s novel Paludes is scheduled to appear in 2014.

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