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Cover of City of StrangersI’ve written in the past about the strengths and weaknesses of using the present tense in fiction. At times it can be very effective, but it’s a snappy, percussive tense, ill-suited to more ponderous prose. Ian MacKenzie‘s use of the present in City of Strangers is symptomatic of an overall discord, a clash in a novel that doesn’t seem sure whether it’s a fast psychological thriller or a Saul Bellow-style portrait of a man in his city.

The story follows a week in the life of Paul Metzger, a failing writer, still smarting from a recent divorce and a long-term breakdown in his relationship with his brother. His father, an infamous Nazi sympathiser in his youth, is dying in hospital, while Paul walks the streets of New York. When he rescues a foreign boy from a street beating, he finds himself the target of one of the assailants, who begins following him around the city.

MacKenzie has clearly been reading his Literary Giants, and there are some effective descriptions and observations here. However, these are buried in a sea of verbosity. Take this scene, when he first witnesses the fight:

He makes the turn and sees them, stationed away from the ungainly stare of the streetlamp and—inevitably, he thinks—in front of his own building. Two stand, hurling back violent swallows from bottles sheathed in paper bags, and a third man, helpless from the load of alcohol in his body, is already on his knees, his arms chasing wildly around his head. Annoyed in advance at whatever idiocies they will heckle him with as he passes, Paul quickens his pace and sets his face in an uninviting scowl. He straightens his back, as if posture alone can articulate his unwillingness to engage even in brief, good-hearted banter with these drunks.

Large passages of the text are clunky, an effect that’s exacerbated by the present tense: because everything that’s happening in the present tense is happening at this moment, if you make your sentence too long, time will stretch to breaking point and the sense of reality—any sense at all—will break. This exerts an additional drag on the rhythm of the prose; several times, I found myself actually translating into the past tense as I read, just to keep the narrative going.

Adding to the verbosity are some real clangers: at one point, a piece of card is thrown into a bin “where it floats like an island of white upon the dark, mute sea”, and there are some pretty crass observations, such as when Paul first visits the funeral parlour to make arrangements for his father’s funeral:

[…] he can’t help but notice that they avoid any brush with the reminders of mortality that must elsewhere fill the building. The weeping, the embalming, the cremation—those occupy other rooms.

Well, yeah, they would. That scene goes on to alternate between Paul’s meeting with the funeral director, and paragraphs of his father’s background. It’s ill-advised: the italicized backstory, told in the past tense, clashes with the ongoing present tense narrative, yanking the reader between the two until they’ve both lost their own sense of reality.

The characters have a complex and potentially interesting set of interlocking relationships: Paul’s brother Ben has rejected his father and converted to Judaism. Paul is considering an offer to write a biography of his father, and what such an project would mean to him. He feels unfinished business with his ex-wife, but she doesn’t. There’s a fuss between the brothers over who will inherit the father’s estate. None of these ideas are really developed, though. It’s as though the author has come up with them, decided they’re interesting, and then put them up without really being sure of where to take them or what they mean: in place of meaning or sound observation, we get the tortured verbosity.

Then, for the final third of the book, the prose suddenly relaxes, all the gears change, and the novel takes on the voice of a simple thriller—it’s only in these final, snappier pages that the present tense really works.

If it had taken this tone from the start, City of Strangers could have been an effective debut thriller. If MacKenzie had worked more on developing the relationships between the characters, developed a proper resolution for their conflicts, dropped the present tense, and then given the thing a merciless edit, it could have been a very interesting character piece.

Either of these approaches could have been successful, because despite all the foregoing, there’s still a strong sense that Ian MacKenzie has ability. There are some nice touches, such as the moment in which Paul is about to enter a room in which his ex-wife is being held hostage, powerfully aware of the imminent threat and danger, and suddenly realises that he has no idea how he should hold his hands.

Before MacKenzie can realise this potential, however, he needs to learn to control the rhythm and the effect of his prose. City of Strangers is ill-conceived and plagued by a multitude of ill-judged passages; in many ways, it reads like an early draft, and I’m surprised that he wasn’t encouraged to develop it further before publication. As it is, this is far from being a strong novel, but if MacKenzie can get control over his writing, his next book just might be.

6 Comments on “City of Strangers by Ian MacKenzie”

  1. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Very interesting observations, Rob. The impression I get is that a good editor could have suggested one more (not even terribly drastic) re-write that would have resulted in a quite good book. Sometimes it is even more frustrating to read a book that is close to succeeding, but fails, than to read one that is obviously hopeless.

  2. Petulia Says:

    I agree with Kevin. Your point about the use of the present tense is very valid. So why, in your opinion, are so many writers using this tense? What are they trying to achieve?

  3. Rob Says:

    Kevin: You’re right. A good solid rewrite would have done wonders… but I find myself thinking that about a lot of novels at the moment. Occupational hazard?

    Petulia: That’s an interesting question. The present tense can be very effective for a narrative. It creates a sense of things happening right. this. second. A man with a gun opens a door, a floorboard creaks, a girl looks into her lovers eyes… but with more descriptive, idea-filled prose, the sense of things happening right. now. doesn’t always work. Impressions take time to accumulate; they form in memory, rather than in the moment, and as such, their more natural home is the past tense—or so I think, anyway.

    I think one reason that the present tense crops up so much in new writing is because its immediacy gives it an alien ring: when a writer tries it out, they hear something new in their voice. Sometimes, I think this gives them the false impression that they’ve crossed through into a higher level of writing. The same thing happens when an inexperience writer first tries out writing in the first or—God help us—the second person.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I wonder if the use of the present tense might be a reflection of the increasing influence of screen-writing, where that tense is more the norm. Particulary with “thriller” type books there is a fair amount of crossover (I think of Price) that may have an effect. I will admit that I also prefer an approach that allows for more contemplation from the reader.

  5. Biblibio Says:

    I happen to like present tense only if it’s done really well. So it would be something super to the point. Usually, though, because it’s so hard to write, the book or the story ends up bad even if it’s promising in other areas (story, characters…) which is disappointing because it means that had the writer not written bad present tense it could have been great. Which leads me to wonder why, indeed, an editor would let such a book pass when it could be significantly better…

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