Bookforum talks with Andrew Durbin

MacArthur Park BY Andrew Durbin. Nightboat. Paperback, 304 pages. $15.
Andrew Durbin

Over the past few years, I’ve heard Andrew Durbin read a handful of times from material that would comprise his debut novel, MacArthur Park. Blushing, he’d rush through the reading, his anxious timbre at odds with the confidently intelligent voice of his prose. Named for Donna Summer’s 1978 hit song, the novel is a series of snapshots, a scrapbook of scenes following a voyeuristic narrator, Nick (who, like Durbin, is a writer—a poet, obsessed with death, distracted by sex—and a lover of contemporary art) as he travels to dance clubs in Brooklyn, an artists’ residency upstate, the Tom of Finland Foundation, the Madonna Inn, the Pines in Fire Island, and the Heath in London, all the while trying to explain this book, the book he’s trying to write, to everyone he meets.

Durbin’s essayistic foraging for a link between high art and lowbrow behavior, the in-crowd and the outcast, pop-cultural glamor and existential angst—all under the lens of sharp social critique—creates what I want to call real-time metafiction, where the narrative unfolds as if it’s being written while it’s being read. And Nick, like Durbin, is self-destructively self-reflective: He analyzes every occasion and interaction to the point of paralysis. Yet he perseveres, despite his neurotic uncertainty about the future, in an arduous pursuit of a plot, which in turn becomes the plot. In one of the book’s breathless climaxes, Nick wonders if he exaggerated, or even fabricated, the opening scene (a cinematic description of watching a gas plant explode in Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy) in order to place himself more fully inside the present.

Durbin and I met to talk disco, autobiographical fiction, LA, Europe, and climate justice.

Remind me, the real-life MacArthur Park is in LA or London?

It’s in LA.

The name sounds so European to me.

It’s very American. It was named after General Douglas MacArthur, and before that it had many other names.

I listened to the song last night for the first time and I didn’t like it that much. What drew you to it?

I was infatuated with someone who loved the song. I’d never heard it before he played it for me one night, so my love for it came from my love for him. I listened to it a lot then because I wanted to understand him better, and I ended up playing it so often that soon it began to mean less and less to me, which eventually allowed me to think of it as an art object, distinct from my emotional attachment to it.

I hadn’t realized that it was a cover of a terrible, sentimental song recorded by Richard Harris. I love that Donna Summer decided to flip it into disco—it’s the most unexpected disco song—it would be like Kylie Minogue turning “Blowin’ in the Wind” into a dance track. I really enjoy that gesture. And then there’s the oddity of the place the song is about, this park in LA that has such a checkered history. I’m always thinking about, and the book is always digging into, the discrepancy between the representation of a place and the place itself.

I’ve never actually been to MacArthur Park, just like the narrator has never been to MacArthur Park.

Which I’ve been wondering—do you consider this to be an autobiographical novel, or is the narrator meant to be an invented entity?

That’s something I’ve wrestled with. I’m still in the early stages of living with the book, and my thinking as its author is changing as I’ve begun to see it through other people’s eyes. I wrote the book as a compilation of set-pieces that nod to the New Narrative writers of the 1970s and ’80s—Gary Indiana, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy, Robert Glück, to name a few. I was thinking about the strategies they used to challenge normative narrative fiction—particularly the formation of a character within a story that obviously mirrors the writer, because that character seems to be writing the book that the reader is reading, which generates an intimacy that’s both true and false.

So I resist calling it autobiography or autofiction. Frankly it’s not. That assumption emerges out of this condition—the intimacy suggestive of autobiography, of memoir—which I’ve set up within the fiction. The incidents bear resemblance to moments in my life, sure, but in a very loose, almost unrecognizable way. I couldn’t map my experiences onto his, only a few of his encounters closely parallel my own.

A friend read the book and asked about the ending. He said, “What did you do after that?” I like this question—it makes me think that Nick as a character has succeeded with the reader on some level. He’s achieved a certain reality, since my friend wanted to know what happened next, as if anything had happened in the first place. But there is no character outside the book as it’s written. The weirdness of a novel is its illusion of coincidence with reality.

That makes me think of yesterday, when Klaus Biesenbach posted footage of Hurricane Irma flooding Miami streets on Instagram—a reality that coincided with the opening of MacArthur Park. Would you read the first line?

“Two years after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New York City, Klaus Biesenbach, the director of MoMA PS1, posted to his popular Instagram account an image of the Statue of Liberty overrun by a tidal wave from the film The Day After Tomorrow . . .”

How does that feel, seeing these analogous scenarios play out?

A friend wrote to me in the wake of Harvey and Irma, saying that he felt like my book was somehow coming true. I hadn’t thought of the book as predictive, or as having any unique insight or foresight. It doesn’t. It comes out of well-documented, popular science, my kind of layman’s knowledge about the climatic precariousness that shapes our lives today. It does feel spooky to release a book that’s concerned with the destructive power of hurricanes—on properties as well as psyches; private and public histories—in light of recent events.

When the song “MacArthur Park” enters the narrative, it prefaces the book’s major revelatory moment: The narrator remembers commuting into Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy—no electricity, a kind of post-apocalyptic atmosphere—and he thinks, “Is this the future?”

That scene takes place a few days after the storm, when the winds have died down. For the narrator, the city does appear as a post-apocalyptic landscape. But in reality, it wasn’t post-apocalyptic, it was just the present. I’m less fixated on the future than I am on the terrifying nature of the present.

And Nick becomes less preoccupied with climate disaster when he travels to London—the last third of the book is more focused on “what the weather made people do—and the weather of what people did.”

The relationship in the novel between California and Europe revolves around different kinds of social vulnerability. This is prefigured early in the book when I write about Mike Davis’s analysis of the limitations of English in understanding a place like California.

Geologically, Europe hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, while California has, a lot. In Europe, we have this long geographic understanding—a vast body of knowledge—that examines how a landscape changes based on the seasons and the weather and less regular disturbances, like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It’s rarer for Europe to undergo a sudden geological or climatic drama.

Contrast that with California—earthquakes all the time, wildfires are a constant threat, flooding, mudslides—these are the definitive aspects of California’s landscape. A Californian experiences these events many times in a year, a European only a few times in a lifetime. Europe is engaged on climate justice, more so than the United States, but the continent itself is at less immediate risk, for the most part. This presents two very different ways of living and two very different problems in the book, and to me as a writer. The European section consciously moves away from worrying about climate disaster, and into questioning what public space can be and mean.

California’s a recent invention, a product of the white people who stole it. There’s a line in the book, that California is “the end of an arc constructed over the dead who resisted it.” That arc—the one we call American civilization—begins in Europe. And now, the record used by city-planners and real-estate developers doesn’t go back much before the Europeans’ arrival.

While those very planners and developers determine what and where the so-called public space is.

Yes, although it’s constantly up for negotiation. Governments and corporations intervene, alter it, commodify it for their gain all the time. With this in mind, the novel ends by asking, “What do we do with our private desires in public spaces? And how does a public space shape those desires?”

Zachary Pace is a writer and editor in New York City whose work has appeared in the Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, PEN America Poetry Series, and elsewhere.