Everyone Is Watching asks us to question who really makes a city

Megan Bradbury's novel of derelict New York of the 1970s was generative even as it was falling apart, inspiring artists of all stripes.

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Who makes a city? Is it the urban planners, summoning bridges and highways out of thin air, conjuring swimming pools and parks from slums and marshes? Or is it the citizens, crammed cheek by jowl in tenements, hip to groin on subways, making their own desire paths through the metropolis, repurposing the built environment to suit their needs? This is the question that drives Megan Bradbury’s luminous first novel, a kaleidoscopic dreamscape of New York seen through the eyes of some of its most celebrated inhabitants.

First, the master builder: Robert Moses, the visionary despot responsible for structuring and sculpting the mid-century city. His projects included sites for public uplift and enjoyment such as the Lincoln Centre, Shea Stadium and Jones Beach, as well as dozens of roads, among them the FDR Drive and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. His idea of the perfect city was a place you could get into and out of fast, and he was determined to make urban life hygienic and rational, whether the people he displaced wanted it or not.

Moses is an almighty figure (Robert Caro’s 1974 biography, The Power Broker, runs to 1,344 pages) but Bradbury deals with him deftly in her vignettes, casting him against a trio of artists with a very different notion of what might constitute urban pleasure.

Cruising through Moses’s time frame is Robert Mapplethorpe, with his cold green eyes and his chilly, rapacious sensibility, on course for discovering dual outlets in photography and sex. The full sweep of Mapplethorpe’s jagged life is here, arranged as meticulously as the necklaces he loved to string, “this bead and then this bead then this bead”.

A century earlier, and similarly seduced by the city’s possibilities, is the poet Walt Whitman, aboard a cross-country train with his biographer. He pontificates woollily about democracy and brotherhood, bent on building a new poetics out of the diction of common American lives.

It’s always a gamble making fictional play out of real people, but in her final character Bradbury takes an even bolder step, inserting a living artist into the frame. She portrays the novelist Edmund White as an ageing isolate (counterfactually; the real White is married), newly returned to the sanitised Manhattan of 2013 after a long spell in Paris. True, White took the same liberty with Stephen Crane in Hotel de Dream, but his own presence here left me uneasy.

This White is nostalgic, vulnerable, baffled. He wanders the tourist-thronged High Line, dreaming of the city of his youth, the wild nights below ground at the Mineshaft club, naked but for his shoes, the men like “phantoms in the dark”.

Sex is part of Bradbury’s vision of what a city can be and do, the kind of contact it might permit. She opens a glory hole into a hedonistic era before Aids, when gay claimed men the rotting Hudson piers as cruising grounds. In this place of ruin, love could happen between strangers, as “knife-sharp walls of light streamed in through ­injured ceilings”.

The derelict New York of the 1970s was generative even as it was falling apart, inspiring artists of all stripes. Unconcerned with the hydraulics of plot, Bradbury constructs a complicated and lovely mosaic, interspersed with passionate descriptions of works of art. There’s Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency (“Nan begins and ends in this room in the Bowery, but after tonight traces of her will be found all over the city”); Gordon Matta-Clark’s monumental Day’s End; Laurie Anderson’s Institutional Dream Series, in which the artist charts her dreams after napping in various public spaces.

The effect is immersive and compelling, heightened by an unusually declarative present tense. Full names are repeated, occasionally to the point of Peter-and-Janeish absurdity. “Robert Moses is standing on Manhattan’s western shore in 1934.” “Robert Mapplethorpe looks his lovers directly in the eye when he has sex.” “He would not excite Edmund White, though he should think him very beautiful.”

The cumulative effect of these deliberately repetitive formulations is grating and hypnotic at the same time. What Bradbury is doing is working herself deep into the ­present moment, capturing its inconclusiveness and mutability, the stuttering sense of something on the verge of coming into view. Time contracts and dilates; a whole life squeezed into a page, an entire world summoned from a single photograph.

There are costs to all modes of living. Moses begins a hero but finds himself increasingly called to account by the people whose homes he razes, the slum-dwellers he believed as discountable as render ghosts. His greatest opponent is the doughty Jane Jacobs, a Greenwich Village mother who had a different idea of how cities should be organised, and who later wrote the defining work of ethical urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Bradbury shares something of Jacobs’s ­vision, which is to see that the strength of cities is diversity, not development. The great miracle of an urban space is that it allows interactions to happen between strangers, from the sustenance of community to the alchemy of art. Dirty, dangerous and delicious, this is a novel that understands the cost of contact and bets on it anyway.

Olivia Laing is the author of “The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone” (Canongate).

Everyone Is Watching by Megan Bradbury is published by Picador (278pp, £12.99)

This article appears in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink