A New York Times Notable Book
A hypnotic, spellbinding novel set in Greece and Africa, where a young Liberian woman reckons with a haunted past.
On a remote island in the Aegean, Jacqueline is living alone in a cave accessible only at low tide. With nothing to protect her from the elements, and with the fabric between herself and the world around her increasingly frayed, she is permeated by sensory experiences of remarkable intensity: the need for shade in the relentless heat of the sun-baked island; hunger and the occasional bliss of release from it; the exquisite pleasure of diving into the sea. The pressing physical realities of the moment provide a deeper relief: the euphoric obliteration of memory and, with it, the unspeakable violence she has seen and from which she has miraculously escaped.
Slowly, irrepressibly, images from a life before this violence begin to resurface: the view across lush gardens to a different sea; a gold Rolex glinting on her father’s wrist; a glass of gin in her mother’s best crystal; an adoring younger sister; a family, in the moment before their fortunes were irrevocably changed. Jacqueline must find the strength to contend with what she has survived or tip forward into full-blown madness.
Visceral and gripping, extraordinary in its depiction of physical and spiritual hungers, Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift is a novel about ruin and faith, barbarism and love, and the devastating memories that contain the power both to destroy us and to redeem us.
Excerpted from A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik. Copyright © 2013 by Alexander Maksik. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels You Deserve Nothing (Europa, 2011) and A Marker to Measure Drift (Knopf, 2013). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Tin House, Harvard Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Condé Nast Traveler, Salon and Narrative Magazine, among other publications and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he is the recipient of fellowships from the Truman Capote Literary Trust and The Corporation of Yaddo.
Q: A MARKER TO MEASURE DRIFT opens on a young woman—Jacqueline—alone, hungry, destitute. We don't know the details of her journey, yet we come upon her in this dark moment. Is that how you first met her, conceived of her? How did this story begin for you?
A: I was living in Paris, but was spending a lot of time in a small village in the north of Italy where my girlfriend was studying. In the mornings when she was in class, I’d sit in the sun on the steps of the town’s palace where I could look out over the gardens and work. One morning a thin black man wheeled his bicycle through the gates. He sat on a bench beneath a tree and lit a cigarette. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but I couldn’t stop watching him – he had a certain elegance and poise, the way he smoked, the way he appeared so unhurried, the way he rested his elbow on the seat of his bike. Anyway, after an hour or so he stood up and left. Over the course of that week I’d see him each morning and we’d nod to each other. I’d not seen a black person in the whole region, let alone this village and I couldn’t stop imagining how he’d come to be there, what his life might be like, what it had been before.
For all I knew he was a tourist like me, or he was born there, or was a surgeon working at a nearby hospital. But whatever his story, somehow the novel began to crystalize with him.
It’s strange the way Jacqueline came to me. At first I was writing a male character from Senegal. I couldn’t quite get the feel of him – he remained vague as a character and I felt no real enthusiasm for him. Then by chance I read an article about Liberia and somehow decided to try writing a Liberian woman. I don’t fully understand it myself. I just know that as soon as I started something clicked, and I had her – she was so present in my mind. So alive. The story itself took more time, but her character arrived suddenly. I’m not sure exactly where she came from. It was an odd thing. Wonderful too.
Q: The novel comes to us squarely from Jacqueline, her often painful experience of the present and the memories that slip out from her past. What were the challenges (and maybe the joys?) of inhabiting a character so deeply, connecting with life experiences quite different from your own? Were there any surprises along the way?
A: The strange thing is that this novel feels more personal than anything I’ve ever written. I’m put off by writers who have contempt for their characters. It’s so much easier to do that kind of work – to create characters with the intention of mocking and destroying them. The best writing is an act of compassion and I knew that the only way to approach a character so far from my own experience was to try to love her. And so the surprise, the real joy, was that I fell in love with Jacqueline, and that I was capable of doing so. I thought about her constantly. I missed her when I wasn’t writing. I worried about her as I fell asleep. I often woke in the middle of the night and saw her wherever I’d left her – on a beach, on a bench, on a path. I’d lie awake trying to figure out where she’d go next, which is precisely what Jacqueline was doing herself. So there was this strange fusion of experiences, those
in my imagination and those I imagined for her.
Q: Jacqueline is from Liberia. Through flashbacks her early life is revealed, both her personal past and the larger political and social realities of the region. What sort of research did you do to prepare for this aspect of the novel?
A: When I was just starting to write the book I watched a film called Liberia: An Uncivil War. I found it deeply moving. A few months later I was a writer-in-residence on a farm in the Estonian countryside. I had the film with me and I watched it over and over again. Some of the images are hideous and brutal. Seeing them repeatedly in this picturesque, pastoral setting was an odd and formative experience. In an oblique way, I think it was the act of watching those images in the midst of so much beauty that helped me figure out the way Jacqueline would shift so fluidly between her present life on Santorini and the life of her memories. And then there was Helene Cooper’s memoir The House on Sugar Beach; Ellen Sirleaf’s book; other films; articles from all variety of newspapers; histories; UN reports on Charles Taylor; BBC recordings; and Tim Hetherington’s exquisite book of photographs, Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold.
Q: The current day setting of A Marker to Measure Drift is Greece, which is beautifully, luxuriously described, both the people and the landscape. Why did you choose Greece? Have you been there, know it well?
A: I wanted Jacqueline to wash up on an idyllic island – someplace at once pristine and haunting. I’ve spent a lot of time in Greece and on Santorini in particular. Oia, the small village at the northern tip is perhaps the most beautiful place I’ve ever been – a kind of beauty that is shocking and overwhelming, almost painful. The history of the island is fascinating to me – particularly the geological history. I love that the island was first created because of a volcanic eruption, and then blasted apart by another. I’ve always found that to be a wonderful thing – that all of those prized views, the dramatic cliffs are there because of a disaster. There’s always the threat there of another eruption. I wanted Jacqueline to be confronted with that strange beauty, with the impermanence of the place and the constant threat of catastrophe.
Q: Physical pleasures are also carefully and sensually described: a sip of water after deep thirst, sleep in a moment of peace and safety, a bite of salted meat after days of hunger. Did you alter your outlook to capture the heightened senses of someone long been deprived, and if so how? Or did it come naturally?
A: I knew that I wanted to write a kind of sensual novel with as little authorial intrusion as possible, to close the distance between reader and character so that Jacqueline’s immediate physical experience might also be the reader’s. It seemed the only way to do that would be to focus intensely on sensual detail. I tend to approach all writing this way – with a concentration on the sensate. I’m far more interested in living this way as well – I am happiest, most awake when I’m eating, or swimming, or watching a storm. I’m particularly alert to the physical world. I’m not an intellectual, nor an academic. I probably should have been a lifeguard instead of a writer. But writing this novel forced me to focus on what I’ve come to think of as sensual intelligence. And it forced me to pay very careful attention to hunger and thirst and fatigue and changing light and all the rest.
Q: As we watch Jacqueline propelled across the Greek isles, we are also slowly introduced to her family—powerful father, beloved baby sister, glamorous mom. With nothing to go on but Jacqueline's often jumbled impressions, the book looks at the painful interplay between memory and madness. Can you talk a bit about exploring this intersection?
A: I wanted to tell the story as naturally as possible – in the way that the story might unfold for Jacqueline herself. There is her present life. There are her immediate problems – where to sleep, what to eat, where to wash. But there is also memory and because she’s constantly alone and isolated, those memories, and particularly those individuals she remembers so clearly, come to feel real. I’ve spent a great deal of time alone in my life and when I do I’m often struck by how quickly I fall into a sort of conversation with myself. This may make me sound mad, but the longer I spend alone the more moment seems to blend with memory. The dead come back to you, the world seems sharper, old friends appear. After a while it becomes difficult to distinguish between memory and present life. Finally, I think, the novel is about that very interplay between those two modes of existence and the importance of storytelling as a way to maintain one’s sanity.
Q: Can you tell us about the title, A MARKER TO MEASURE DRIFT, and why you chose it?
A: When I was young my parents would take me to the beach. While they sat on the sand I’d swim in the ocean. We always brought a little red and white cooler with us for sandwiches and drinks. I’d keep an eye on that cooler as I was swimming and use it as a way to measure how far I’d drifted in the current – it was a marker to measure drift. I think of Jacqueline searching for a solid, permanent home from which she can measure how far she’s drifted. Of course, I mean this in various ways.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: In no particular order: Faulkner, Wislawa Szymborska, James Salter, Mavis Gallant, J.M. Coetzee, Mary Gaitskill, Hemingway, Chris Abani, Claire Messud, Chekhov, WS Merwin, Richard Hugo, Kafka, Flaubert, Sharon Olds. I always get tripped up on this question. I forget half the people I love.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m just finishing a collection of short stories. And I’m about to head off into the woods for a few months to work on my next novel. Very generally it’s a story about the importance of fantasy and the hereditary nature of mental illness. That’s all I want to say for the time being. I’m superstitious.
1. Why might the author have chosen to use these quotations by Eudora Welty and Robert Graves as epigraphs? What relationship do they have to the major themes of the novel?
2. Consider the first sentence of the novel: “Now it was night.” What impact does this line have? Is it an effective first line? What symbolic relevance might it have? How does it foreshadow Jacqueline’s state of mind and being? How does Maksik use darkness and light throughout the book, and what purposes might this particular imagery serve?
3. Jacqueline’s point of view clearly dominates the story. Readers never really know what other characters think of her, only how Jacqueline believes she is being perceived. How does this influence our reception of the story and shape our understanding of Jacqueline? How does point of view allow Maksik to develop a sense of sympathy or empathy among readers? Is he successful in doing so?
4. How does the author evoke or document sensory experience in the novel? How does he capture sensation? Why is this detail of the work so important? What does it reveal about Jacqueline and her experiences?
5. Much of the novel is devoted to descriptions of Jacqueline’s hunger and her experience of looking for or eating food. Consider the various ways that the author treats the subject of hunger. How do the tourists eating as “an entertainment” (4) contribute to this dialogue and influence our understanding of Jacqueline’s own experience? How is hunger used metaphorically within the novel?
6. Jacqueline often reminds herself of the proper way to handle situations. Why is she concerned with pride and a sense of grace and propriety though she suffers so? Why does she refuse charity and, more broadly, refuse to ask for help? Why does she lie to the people she meets instead of sharing her story? What message does the book present, then, about human dignity? And about guilt? What role does charity play in the book, and how do acts of charity contribute to Jacqueline’s survival?
7. Until the conclusion of the story, the book contains minimal dialogue. Most exchanges take place via Jacqueline’s hallucinations or imaginings of conversations with her mother. Why do you think the author chose to limit dialogue in this way? What does it tell us about Jacqueline? Why is it important that this changes by the end of the story?
8. Analyze and evaluate the plot or narrative structure of the story. What would you identify as the major actions of the story? How does the spare plot enhance the feeling of Jacqueline’s psychological turmoil? How do each of Jacqueline’s actions allow her to cope with her psychological condition?
9. Jacqueline often hears her mother referring to will of God, but what role does faith ultimately play in the novel? Does Jacqueline share her mother’s point of view? Does this change throughout the story? What does Jacqueline’s conversation with her sister, Saifa, reveal about her views of faith? What does Jacqueline ultimately decide to pray for? Are her prayers answered?
10. Evaluate the form of the novel. How does the structure of the book complement and support or contrast with the major themes of the novel, and what does it reveal about Jacqueline’s state of mind? What is the effect of the short sections, and of Maksik’s clean, spare prose? Does the form ultimately complement the content?
11. What message does the book offer about memory? What does Jacqueline mean when she considers the link between memory and madness? Are Jacqueline’s memories reliable? Does her process of remembering help her or hurt her?
12. Jacqueline’s memories of Bernard are both fond and furious. Why? Do you believe she is justified in feeling as she does? Why or why not?
13. How does the author create a sense of time passing? How do imagery and structure help to facilitate this? What other literary devices does the author use to create a sense of the passage of time or a sense of past and present?
14. Jacqueline escapes the violence of Liberia and exiles herself on a beautiful Greek island. She also spends times amid ruins, which contain an active volcano. “What was once an island is now the ruins of an island” (99), Maksik writes. Evaluate the setting. Discuss the purpose and effect of the author’s choice of setting.
15. Jacqueline seeks shelter in a cave and among unfinished structures. How does she treat these sites or act within them? What rituals does she engage in there? Why are such rituals important? What might they indicate about the human experience?
16. What message or messages does the book contain about survival and human will? How does Jacqueline manage to survive? What attributes allow her to keep going and to make progress? What obstacles does she face and how does she overcome them?
17. Jacqueline often pauses to recognize that she has made a decision. What role does choice play in the novel? What does Jacqueline mean when she thinks of returning to “the endlessness of choice” (102)? Conversely, what role do fate and serendipity seem to play in the novel? Does the novel seem to indicate that we have control of our lives, or not?
18. Why does Jacqueline’s father support Charles Taylor? What effect does this have on their family’s lifestyle? What impact does it ultimately have for the family? Why does Jacqueline return to Liberia after school despite her promise to her mother that she will stay away? What does this indicate about the intersection of the political and the personal? What message does it offer about our ethical choices?
19. At the conclusion of the novel, though Jacqueline finally reveals her story, she wonders if “telling it [is] an act of violence” (208). What does she mean by this? She also admits that she has “forgotten the reason for stories” (208). What seems to be Jacqueline’s reason for telling her story to Katarina? What does Katarina want to share with Jacqueline? What might each woman hope to gain from telling her story? What might the final scenes indicate, then, about the link between catharsis and storytelling or the comfort of common experience?