The subject of a large entangled group in an emotionally heightened situation gives Markovits a lot to play with, and he is highly attuned to the idea of the family as a network: an “information- processing machine … decision-requiring machine … argument-creating machine … catering company and cleaning service …”. Yet the breadth of options to explore and the lack of a single dominant character are also the book’s chief downfalls. While A Weekend in New York is plotted with just enough propulsion, having been built around a compelling central character at a crossroads in his life, participating in an event containing in-built suspense, Christmas in Austin sags into formlessness.
Someone flying gratefully home on the final page reads a Jack Reacher novel, highlighting how unthrillerish this all is. Yet, rereading, I couldn’t shake the notion that Markovits’s scrupulously equitable sifting of the Essingers’ clashing desires, perpetually unvoiced, made certain passages here a kind of aesthetic cousin to one of Reacher’s super-slo-mo punch-ups — as if he were the Lee Child of passive-aggressive stand-offs over how best to roast potatoes.
The novel is set in Austin, ‘the acceptable or cool part of Texas’, with its bright wintry sunshine, balmy air and ‘car washes and Family Markets and taco shacks’. It’s also set in a pre-Trump USA, which is a wise move. Without the distracting white noise of present-day politics, the family’s tribulations can be examined all the more forensically. Capitalising on the previous book’s strengths, and cannily evading its weaknesses, Christmas in Austin is even more impressive than A Weekend in New York. It’s a subtle, complex, grown-up study of a modern family. There’s something pleasurable and astute to be found on every page.
If you haven’t read the first in this rangy, yet addictively immersive, American family saga, all you need know is that Paul Essinger, retired from his undistinguished tennis career, is having a slow-motion breakdown... He’s as interested in the arguments we have with ourselves as with others (we’re often plunged deep inside characters’ heads, to great effect) and excels at depicting the sticky, tricky, constantly shifting sands of family allegiances... This is up there with the best contemporary Christmas novels — equal to, if very different from, Anne Enright’s The Green Road (although it’s the great Tessa Hadley whom Markovits recalls more).
The book wanders in and out of the heads of the gathering family members, and we witness their private thoughts as well as the small intimacies that get them through the week. We see the suffocation of the enforced annual family gathering, where small arguments open old wounds... I found myself caring less and less about the underdeveloped characters, and irritated by the self-importance of the overdeveloped ones. Though the novel is intricately, intimately written, with some wonderful prose and delicate dialogue, it suffers from an uneven pace and doesn’t work hard enough to keep the reader invested in the Essingers’ privileged lives.
Benjamin Markovits is a companionable novelist. He likes his characters and invites you to share his liking. He is also a daring one. There are stories in this novel, lots of stories, intertwined and bumping up against each other, but he has dispensed with plot. Plot is unnecessary. Plot belongs to another sort of fiction. Here you are asked to engage in what’s happening now, not to be eager for what happens next... There is a charm to this novel, the sort of charm you find in that masterpiece of cinema, Meet Me in St Louis, with its wonderful Christmas scene. But charm is dangerous in a novel; it can easily turn to syrup. Markovits is too alert to the difficulties and discordances of family life to drift into that area. The result is a novel that is as pleasurable as it is intelligent.
The Essingers — who appeared in Markovits’s previous novel, A Weekend in New York — are prosperous liberal Americans, with differing and sometimes frictional ideas of success. It is a tour de force of omniscient writing, with the author party to the minds and inner lives of virtually the whole cast as they orbit each other like a carefully constructed orrery. The micro-detailed narrative is distinctively North American, and it throws up endless small perceptions, such as when grandmother Liesel watches children on a snow-crusted lawn, in what she realises they will one day remember as deep childhood, “as if it lay at the bottom of a deep well”.
In its protean perspective on family dynamics, Christmas in Austin is a bravura feat, but the plethora of incidental detail sometimes makes it come across less like a novel than a live documentary feed: “Dana woke up, a little after five, when Jean used the bathroom.” Momentous events do occur – loved ones die and relationships collapse – but their consequences are subsumed into the open-ended dramatic irresolution. Spending time with the Essingers is at once a pleasure and a chore – and in that sense Markovits’s novel has persuasively recreated the kind of family occasion to which most of us submit at this time of year.
There’s something deeply unfashionable about examining the minutiae of rich liberals’ lives in the Obama era. Christmas in Austin runs the risk of being utterly irrelevant and it does feels dusty at times, but in a charming way. Markovits treats his characters tenderly and his dialogue is achingly realistic, down to the most banal chit-chat. There are apparently two more Essinger novels in the works, covering the Boston marathon bombing in 2013 and Trump’s inauguration, suggesting not only that history will begin to press upon the family, but also that Markovits’s fiction may get more eventful. Personally, I was engrossed by the chewy relationship dynamics. It’s a novel that everyone should read before they face their own family Christmas.