This is the first novel from Megan Bradbury, who has an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia; it’s hard to know quite what to make of it.
Allegedly a work of fiction, it’s a novel which recounts some of the recent history of New York, as it was experienced by the town planner Robert Moses, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and writers Walt Whitman and Edmund White. Since Edmund White is still alive and writing, it’s a bit odd that there is no note about having permission to write about him in the forthright tone which Bradbury uses. Another unusual thing is that she has chosen to write entirely in the present tense. It feels a little odd but then again, perhaps it helps hold the narrative together, since all the main characters are from different time periods. She does write well.
The difficulty I have with this novel is that there is sufficient factual detail about the main characters and their interactions with one another (particularly White and Mapplethorpe) for it to seem not really fiction. Yet it is clearly written in the form of a novel, and the stories of the characters do come through well on the whole. (The exception for me is Walt Whitman, who feels like a bit part when compared to the main roles played by the others).
There is a great deal of attention, it seemed to me, given to the sexual proclivities of Mapplethorpe and White. I learned more about some of the grittier aspects of the homosexual scene in New York city than I was expecting – but in the event, what remains with me from reading this novel is the vision – and the passion and bludgeoning singlemindedness – of Robert Moses. He was accustomed to getting his own way, regardless of method, but it’s clear that the Big Apple would not be what it is today without his determination. There was indeed opposition to his ideas, as he was ruthless in pulling down whole neighbourhoods in pursuit of his dream, and Jane Jacobs is portrayed well as a battler for local rights. She and others were however unable to withstand the sledgehammer of Moses.
It’s an interesting book. Readers who have visited New York will find many points of familiarity, and there are many allusions to photographs of the city – a city which indeed everyone is watching, all the time.
I’ll be intrigued to see what Megan Bradbury comes up with next.
Reviewed by Sue Esterman
Everyone is watching