Megan Bradbury's NYC: Sex, Art & Urban Planning
As her hypnotic debut novel Everyone is Watching publishes in paperback, Megan Bradbury discusses telling the story of New York. A city whose narrative arc she imagines as a gallery of moments; stills taken from the lives of four famous men
'Fuckfest' is written on the notepad. The word 'fuckfest'. Then, the recollection. This, unfortunately, is not weekend plans, but a reminder of the term coined by The Guardian to celebrate Megan Bradbury’s haunting debut novel, Everyone is Watching. So, a line of questioning for the conversation between The Skinny and Bradbury currently underway in an Edinburgh hotel lounge. The author had earlier tweeted the corresponding Guardian review in delight, highlighting this adjective. She obviously liked it. And this lack of pretentiousness around what is essentially a very serious novel makes it easy to like her.
While the description is certainly apt – parts of the novel are saturated in sex of all types and flavours – this theme is balanced against an overarching strand on urban planning. Everyone is Watching is a story of New York, told through the lives of four famous historical figures. “It just came down to art, sex and urban planning,” laughs Bradbury, “which is a very bizarre collection of interests!” Somehow they connect to form a narrative of the great city. Its most infamous planner has snapshots of his life shuffled among those of an artist infamous for images of self-gratification. Master-builder meets masturbator.
The artist is Robert Mapplethorpe: Robert meets Patti Smith, he creates art. Robert leaves his suburban home but never the edge. His photographs capture guns and dicks and snakes and leather. His father’s friend visits his exhibition: “Harry, I’m no expert, but there’s something seriously wrong with that kid.” Robert lives, he loves, he becomes ill, he dies.
The planner is Robert Moses: Moses constructs the world others inhabit. He forms the city’s mould and the people fill it like jelly. He connects them with bridges and divides them with roads. Moses exerts power like a modern-day god. He ignores the red tape that entangles lesser lives. He says “Once you sink that first stake they’ll never make you pull it up.”
The quartet are made up by the legendary American writer, Walt Whitman. Walt remembers a younger melting-pot city growing around him. Then Edmund White, author of The Joy of Gay Sex. Back in the city of his awakening, Edmund reminisces over youthful love; memories stained sepia over time.
"I like writing things I don’t know too much about initially..."
But how to choose just four lives out of New York’s multitude? Why these individual men? Why exclusively men, and predominantly men who loved men? “There’s a lot of men, yeah,” Bradbury agrees [although Patti Smith naturally features next to Mapplethorpe, and the urban activist Jane Jacobs locks horns with Moses]. “I think I’m more interested in men generally. I’ve been writing other things since then and it just seems to be my natural way, to go to the male characters.”
The author pauses and ponders. “I don’t know if it’s more of a curiosity... I like writing things I don’t know too much about initially, because I find the kind of language that comes up when you’re stretching to reach this thing is more interesting... I read a lot about Diane Arbus [traveller of an equally creative, radical and ultimately tragic arc to Mapplethorpe]. For a while I was thinking of writing about her but it just didn’t click and the types of themes, to do with the body and sexuality and very specific viewpoints; Mapplethorpe entirely captures that for me.”
The book begins: ‘Robert Mapplethorpe rips out a page from the magazine and cuts around the guy’s torso, leg and dick.’ Its author laughs once more. “Yeah! I thought I’d lay it out straight away. What people are in for.” What they are in for is one of the most arresting and inventive debut novels of the past year. You might also describe it as recklessly brave. Bradbury attempts to reflect a city already saturated across art forms.
It is, of course, the literary stomping ground of DeLillo and Wolfe, the cinematic canvas of Woody Allen, Scorsese and Spike Lee. But Bradbury has – in the way that New York’s musical offspring, hip-hop, makes new by sampling the work of others – made something very much her own by channelling the lives of others. She has chipped away at this monolith of a city and found the sculpture within the stone. Revealed it through a collage of past moments, drawn from the ether and projected onto the walls of the reader’s mind. Bradbury admits that the theme of photography made her think about writing fiction in a completely different way.
“I wanted it to be like walking through an exhibition and looking at individual stills,” she says, “because photography is so tied up with New York history. I just thought that the book, if it was going to work at all, had to reflect the city, and had to reflect photography somehow as well. It just made sense to me.” These moments are presented through fragments of glacial third person, present tense descriptions. It’s a voice which can, with equal validity, be described as lifeless monotone or gloriously effective stylisation. “It’s quite a deliberate thing,” Bradbury argues the positive take. “I wanted the effect to be this, this, this, this,” she chops her hand down onto the table, “… end. There had to be rhythm, because that’s kind of what the city’s like in a way, that’s the experience of it.” And how memory works? “That’s exactly right. I wanted it to be without judgement, without commentary.”
The themes of Everyone is Watching
And thematically? Well the book is preceded by a quote from DeLillo’s Underworld: ‘Longing on a large scale is what makes history.’ Bradbury lists the author among her key New York influences, but its inclusion is more than a simple bow to an idol. “I certainly wanted to use something from Underworld,” Bradbury says, “because it had been this symbol for me. It’s all about New York… it’s about longing and desire, however you want to interpret that, whether its Moses’ vision and ambition for the city, the longing to put this city into practice and to get it working… Longing, it’s a wonderful word, slightly more muted than desire and it has more than a shade of what that means.”
The novel reflects this, lamenting the unsanitised New York of the late 70s and early 80s. The city that offered the personal freedom for the suburbanite Mapplethorpe to create his uncompromising art. As Bradbury puts it: “this idea of a place allowing you to choose a life that you want to live.” But this city no longer accommodates these artists and outsiders so readily. While the South Bronx remains 80 blocks from Tiffany’s, the cultural gradient from cut diamond to urban wasteland is no longer so steep. We contrast the current day with 80s exploitation movies which reflected a city on the brink of moral and financial bankruptcy. Enzo Castellari unearthed ready-made sets for his post-apocalyptic Bronx Warriors films. “It’s horrific,” admits Bradbury, “… when you look at that and think, they haven’t built that for the film, this is exactly what it looks like.”
Manhattan sharpened its own edge during this period. A borough now tamed through a gentrification process seeping out into Brooklyn and beyond. “Manhattan in that period, it’s such an interesting time.” Bradbury says. “I think one of the artists who really represents that is Nan Goldin [who also features in the book] in her photograph collection The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. At that time the city was attracting artists who didn’t have a lot of money, who could find these wonderfully supportive communities and could afford to live together and try things out together. It’s an incredible piece of history which I just don’t know exists in the same way there anymore.” Patti Smith, when questioned some years back on how artists were supposed to afford New York, stated simply; get out. “New York City has been taken away from you… So my advice is: Find a new city,” suggesting Detroit as a replacement.
“In terms of art production, it changes the nature of how people can relate,” Bradbury suggests. “When people are living so far apart they’re not sharing meals together, in the way of Soho in the 70s; everyone living in one big factory building together and squatting or paying very low rent. They came up with projects together… where you have lots of people living very far away where do you have that crossover? Maybe you have that through technology, maybe you get it in a different way.”
Patti was sent a copy of the finished book, but has not yet offered an opinion. Edmund White did; his flattery on being included delights Bradbury. The other main players are of course all dead. ‘Entering the city is like getting into a stomach that has swallowed several million people and is grinding and digesting them’. So stated Gorky of New York in his purple prosed 1906 propaganda work, The City of the Yellow Devil. That city may have consumed many of Bradbury’s protagonists, but they leave behind memories in the form of photographs, books and structures which stand to this day. And they exist still on the pages of Everyone is Watching. As Patti Smith muses on one of those: “We all want souvenirs, we want relics… objects take on the power of moments.”