That “teeming island of gneiss and concrete and glass”, Olivia Laing referred to New York City in her exceptionally brilliant memoir The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (featured on September 13, 2016). “New York was populated by the ambitious. It was often the only thing that everyone here had in common. Ambition and atheism,” Hanya Yanagihara wrote in her celebrated novel A Little Life (featured on October 26, 2016).
Megan Bradbury (@meganbradburyauthor, @) – a writer born in the US and brought up in Britain – has come up with her own unique dissection of this bustling metropolis. In her tender and well-researched debut, Everyone is Watching (2016), Bradbury examines the city’s drive and dreams, its poverty and promiscuity, the struggles of its inhabitants, and their many achievements.
Bradbury, who obtained the prestigious Creative Writing MA of the University of East Anglia, has created fiction out of fact. Her book is a novel inspired by four real New York artists – the poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the city planner Robert Moses (1888-1981), the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) and the writer Edmund White (1940-). Their lives unfold before the reader through various points in time. If one is already accomplished, having a biography written, another hustles on the streets to be able to pay rent.
Through the 68 short chapters of Everyone is Watching, the ever-alert city changes form and shape. Soaring structures are erected, people displaced. New York becomes ridden with criminals and pimps (as in Taxi Driver) then, gradually, it is sanitised and commercialised (as in Home Alone). But the city always remains inclusive – and hungry…for more creativity, more tragedies, more triumphs, more life.
There were parts that I found slow and there were moments when I wished the book had some more dialogue, but as I got further into the book, I also got deeper into the narrative. Ultimately, I was left marvelling at the precision and the poetry of Bradbury’s language. She talked of buildings, she talked of the body with equal ease and passion.
This simultaneously telescopic and microscopic work will be a great treat to both the lover of New York and the general art enthusiast.
* When he [Robert Mapplethorpe] walks across the Brooklyn Bridge he feels on top of the world. The subway is filthy and alive. The clatter of the trains is music. The graffiti inside the carriages is art. The ascent from the subway to the sidewalk is an ascent into heaven. In the busy downtown streets he never feels alone.
* In Times Square there’s an M&M’s World, a Disney Store and a Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant. There’s a Wendy’s a Hard Rock Café and a McDonald’s and a TGI Fridays. Edmund strolls into the Times Square Visitor Center. This used to be a theatre once. Now, it contains information and historical artefacts. Photographs and memorabilia of Times Square line the walls. Where rows of seats once stood in the centre of the room there is now just space. On the stage a cinema screen is showing a documentary film about New York’s past. These are eras Edmund can remember.
He remembers the look-back, the walk-up, the exchange of money for sex. He remembers the boys coming in from the country looking for a quick buck and a place to stay for the night, and the men who were only too happy to help. He remembers the dark movie houses and the cinema screens hanging over theatre stages. The real-life actors were replaced by movies, depictions of people fucking on a screen. The acting was bad but the scenes were explicit and that’s what you had come here to see – bodies penetrating other bodies.
* These people are turning New York into a work of art but it is not the kind of art that can be confined to a frame. Art comes from communities where the rent is cheap. If the rent is cheap, people can afford to live there. Artists have more time to spend on their art. The consequence of this is that their art improves, their art moves on, their art gets someplace. If they raze this neighbourhood to the ground this community will be destroyed and there will be no more art.
* The beauty of New York is that when you turn around there is always something worse to see.
Megan Bradbury has created a list of artworks – music, film, photography, poetry – that, for her, define New York City. Check it out on the Picador website.