THE BOOKSELLER FACES an ethical crisis each time they describe the contents of a book to a potential reader. How to detail the story, if there is one, without giving away the climax? How to separate the book from the market in which it circulates, to let it shine alone? As a literary structure, the novel illustrates this issue when it touches more topics, surfaces, lives, tropes, and contexts than it could ever hope to contain. The narrative arc we draw in order to visualize a given story’s movement traces a series of tangential offshoots; sometimes these offshoots comprise a novel’s principal concern, and it labors to square these intersections lest they overpower the structure that maintains their fragile counterpoint. MacArthur Park (Nightboat, 2017), Andrew Durbin’s debut fiction, exploits the novel’s capacity to connect and bridge without necessarily establishing complete contact. Like the “broken slideshow” he describes in the text, Durbin’s essayistic catalog touches and arranges, sometimes with a caress so gentle it becomes difficult to assess the influence and weight behind it. And, as with many literary works that borrow real people, places, and things — in this case artists, art institutions, the cities where they reside, and the artworks themselves — our entertainment finds itself embroiled in real-world circumstances, politics, and consequences. But is Durbin’s realism really an investigative gesture?
Does it spoil the story to reveal the novel’s title refers to a Jimmy Webb song performed by Donna Summer, as opposed to the park in Los Angeles from which it takes its name? Or, in acknowledging the park and pointing toward the song, does Durbin create a new recursive loop, stacked with meaning upon meaning? About halfway through the book, after clearing the stage with a block quote from Tan Lin concerning disco, Durbin’s narrator, Nick Fowler, opines: “Disco lyrics are one of several important access points into the song: repeated, they become a chant, one that lulls the dancer who sings them, who whispers them to herself as she moves, into the dreamy meditative state the music solicits.” The repeated chorus in Durbin’s pop song turned literary work arrives in Fowler’s frequent digressions into the status of his forthcoming novel, which he claims, usually drink in hand, might be about environmental catastrophe when completed. Actually, he uses a far more anodyne term: weather. The jacket copy adopts the term “disaster” to describe Fowler’s forthcoming bildungsroman. Disaster for its filmic connotation, which propels the opening section of the book; disaster for its specious and all-encompassing use among millennials, the supposed subject and audience of the book according to its purveyors; disaster because, in the queer lexicon in which the book traffics, everyone likes a good, messy train wreck. In the face of disaster, MacArthur Park stands analogous to amyl nitrate inhaled through the nostrils in order to bestow a glittering sheen upon the piss-and-sweat smell of the gay bar Durbin describes: it’s there to make sense (and light) of an otherwise absurd human theater.
No, the piss-and-sweat smell isn’t bad, immoral, or gross. No, the amyl nitrate analogy is not meant to dismiss Durbin’s glitter tactic — which, at full-stride, deserves a comparison to the diaristic style of German prose writer Max Frisch (think Montauk). No, the gestures toward film, young people, and the art world are not inherently problematic. But, when alcohol, sex, international travel, and New York art world money combine with the obsession with disasters popularized by American cinema, rest assured, something has been elided. In this case, it’s MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. “I have never been to the real MacArthur Park,” says Fowler, “though I’ve driven past it many times, and each time it’s seemed so open and bright under the California sun.” Fowler’s confession is unnecessary for Angelenos who pass through MacArthur Park on a regular basis. Because he travels by car to the art institutions referenced in the book — the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, for example — and perpetuates the myth that Los Angeles can only be navigated by personal vehicle, Fowler misses a crucial point of intersection that would counter the millennial-white-male-globetrotter axis on which Durbin’s novel spins: people who aren’t white live in Los Angeles! They congregate in MacArthur Park and its eponymously named Metro station! It’s possible to write about art in contemporary Los Angeles and mention these people! The people who gather at MacArthur Park confront the actual disasters imposed by the art world Durbin allegorizes! The citywide housing crisis, for example, which has left many displaced Angelenos living in or around the park! You don’t need a car to get around Los Angeles! The Metro line goes down Wilshire!
The art world is an unregulated economy that borrows from other economics — theory, poetry, and scientific research, in this case — to continually update its relationship to the world and, in acting as conduit for other (and all) disciplines, strives to become the clearest image of the world in which we may better see ourselves.
If only he could apply this exegesis and redirect its final clause to himself. How does one possess this knowledge — Durbin, not Fowler — and then write a fiction in which a white male millennial art writer drunkenly bumbles about New York and flies to Miami at the behest of an art world benefactor before finally visiting his estranged ex-boyfriend in Europe? Sure, it’s a novel and it’s meant to be fun; it’s also fiction in autobiographical drag, at least according to the author. But if Durbin is able to recognize that “California can take on certain utopian characteristics, especially since the idea of the West is compromised by several hundred years of racist ideology” and sees “Hollywood and its glamor” as the “culmination of those ideas,” why does his novel absorb this glamorizing with such an uncritical stance? Moreover, why contribute to the ongoing problem?
The lip service Durbin pays to the Spectrum in MacArthur Park and his recent interviews offers yet another contradiction. After elevating — via list, not narrative — “radical faeries, non-gender-conforming performers, women and men of color, trans people, some artists, a few writers, loners, the ignored, poor, [and] thrifty” in his lyricizing about the Spectrum, Durbin’s Fowler can’t seem to give body, face, space, time, or presence on the page to the groups that occupy the park of his novel’s namesake. To return to the question posed at the beginning of the essay, how should one package this narrative for sale? What incentive should we give the reader to allow them the peace, serenity, and mental fortitude necessary for such astral travel in lieu of the overpriced crystals Fowler encounters in his research into the occult? Good news: This novel sells itself! Evan Moffitt, Durbin’s colleague at frieze, writing for BOMB, says:
Durbin’s characters are archetypal urban millennials. They work coffee-shop jobs while they peddle their chapbooks. They live in Bed-Stuy and call their parents when they can’t meet their rent. Terrified of a future that’s far from clear, they decide to dance out the storm, to take ecstasy and fuck — to imagine that, for the meantime at least, everything will be OK.
Apparently, we don’t give these white millennials from New York enough time on screen because now they are the subject of an experimental novel set in Los Angeles in which tacos and watermelon juice are consumed within range of the story’s single Latina, a waitress. Perhaps this view ignores the anxiety that sometimes surfaces in Durbin’s recourse to the meta and reflexive. If Durbin, like Fowler, resolved “over a whiskey” to “describe — and account for — the state of things, the state being disaster, that would in turn look like a writing that would become a book, one that organizes the anxiety of that extremity into a fiction or an essay or a poetry or a thing that reads like all three,” he surely nailed the partial resemblances and literary mishmash aspects of his goal.
Evan Kleekamp is the co-director of Les Figues Press in Los Angeles. Their chapbook 13 THESES ON STATE-SPONSORED BLACK DEATH IN AMERICA was published by Kastle Editions in 2016. Excerpts from their in-progress manuscript Three Movements are forthcoming in Fence and Nightboat Books’s Responses, New writings, Flesh anthology edited by Ronaldo V. Wilson, Bhanu Kapil, and Mg Roberts.