Review by Eloise Pearson
‘Everyone is Watching’ was a trial to pick up, and in truth I was a bit apprehensive from page one. I’m not generally a cynical person and I hate to judge a book by its cover (to use a pretty tired cliché), so let me justify myself.
Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the novel’s many protagonists, is one of my greatest loves. When I was younger, I liked to think that I was a big art buff. Therefore, for me, Mapplethorpe was already mythic, he already had a narrative, a persona, a story arch in my head and there was a very big chance that the book was going to read, for me, like bad fan-fiction.
Thankfully, my concerns turned out to be misplaced and I closed ‘Everyone is Watching’ knowing that I had just read one of my favourite books of the year so far – and that is not something I usually say lightly. So I’m going to try and explain what made Bradbury’s novel go from a zero to a ten in just the first few pages.
The novel centres upon four main protagonists: writers, Walt Whitman and Edmund White, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and city planner Robert Moses. They are, of course, real people that a lot of readers will already know and love. But ‘Everyone is Watching’ doesn’t depend or count on this too much. It does not read like biography. Instead each character is a carefully crafted and set against the history of New York City.
Indeed, New York City is central to the novel and throughout the prose I was very much reminded of Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, or perhaps something a bit grittier, like Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’.
Each protagonist struggles with the experience of living in his own version of the city in a way that becomes universal and moving. The reader feels that as Whitman travels above on his rattling train car, thinking about the depravity, loss and loneliness of civil war, writer Edmund White lurks below the same tracks, looking for his lost loves, decades later. Images and allusions overlap beautifully.
So, firstly, what I think I loved so much about this book is the way it communicates the interconnected nature of experience. Bradbury is brutally honest. There is no fear to engage with the sordid, the explicit, the grit of human lust and loneliness. Her protagonists yearn for, ache with, and misremember experience after experience.
Secondly, it is worth mentioning that this book is effortlessly cool. The glimpses of these men’s lives are like polaroid snapshots; grey scale, surrounded by the blank space of the page. The sentences are short and immediate.
The novel is also intensely visual. It reads almost like a Mapplethorpe photograph itself; gritty and intimate and poised. Art and language merge seamlessly; the book features some truly beautiful sentences that will not let you down gently. Language is used to recreate famous New York art pieces such as Laurie Anderson’s ‘Institutional Dream Series’ and Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’. Bradbury brings these works alive for the reader, not through description but through experience. Instead of merely showing us images, we see them through the eyes of every day New Yorkers.
I would conclude by saying that it does not matter in the slightest that I had an idea of who these characters were or how I wanted their narratives to play out before I started reading this novel. To some extent, I do think that the character representation was a little romantic but for me that is okay, it works, because first and foremost the novel is not about these characters. Or at least not in a true to life, biographical way. ‘Everyone is Watching’ is simply about people, about people living in a city, it is about everyone. The book takes everything big and real and honest and holds it all together in a big patchwork of history, architecture, art and narrative to create something truly authentic and beautiful.