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City Out of Time: Tim Murphy on "Christodora"

ChristodoraTim Murphy's Christodora is named after a building in New York's East Village where many of the characters' lives intersect. Moving back and forward in time, it tackles topics ranging from the AIDS crisis, to activism, art, family, and the scourge of drug abuse. Here, Murphy talks about how his relationship to the city, where the past co-mingles with the present, informed the novel, and its structure. It's also a poignant reminder to embrace the now, because "we will never quite have this day—today--again."

I woke in Brooklyn this morning to the sound of construction, the previously airy view from the bedroom window of the friend whose dog I'm sitting now obstructed by two blocky new condos—one completed and glassy, the other a fortress of steel bones and scaffolding. Such is the new New York City, where no amount of money guarantees you an unobstructed view for very long, unless you're a foreign oligarch who can buy a penthouse on the 100th floor…in which case, you're just parking your ill-gotten riches there and you're probably not actually inhabiting it.

There is an awesome cruelty to the way that New York stops or slows for no one, its capitalist disregard for individual or collective nostalgia. I supposed that some New Yorkers of the 1920s and 1930s bemoaned the loss of their charming, six-story cityscape as the town transformed into steel-girded skyscrapers that cast monstrous shadows at noon and gave rise to the idea of "the sunny side of the street." I moved to New York 25 years ago this summer and it's funny to think that the very Deco-era towers I vastly prefer to their new glass cousins were somebody else's soulless, crushing behemoths nearly a century ago.

But that's New York City, both maker and destroyer of memories. There's not a day that I don't walk around in the New York of 2016 and think about my New York of 1991, the summer I moved here, or 1996, my mentally ill summer, or 2000, my drug-addicted summer, or 2004, my protest-the-Republicans summer, or 2010, my falling-in-love summer. It all depends on what street I'm walking down, what part of town I'm in. A walk through the west 20s can bring back a man whom I spent multiple evenings with yet barely knew; passing a sleek new bistro in the East Village will remind me of the epic fight I had there with a friend back when it was a Mexican joint with $6 burritos; rushing down Bleecker St. on a chilly fall evening takes me past the building where a friend had epic Hanukah parties every year until he moved to Brooklyn, along with everyone else.

Tim murphyEvery day in the city for me takes place in the past as much as it takes place in the present. And with the shiny new towers of the 21st century going up all around me, it also takes place in the future. That's why, in Christodora, I wanted to collapse past, present and future by not telling the story in chronological order. If only I'd known on a random night out in 1992 what 2000 or 2006 or 2012 held for me, my friends, for the city overall! How many years did we glance at the Twin Towers daily with never a thought that the landscape might not hold those two mighty (albeit ugly) sentinels? I'm in thrall to thoughts of what the future holds for the present. A favorite game? Asking friends what, if they were suddenly teleported from the early 1990s to the present, they would make of the small rectangular device that everyone walking by them was tap-tap-tapping.

We read characters differently when we know what they were like a decade or two before. When we see them happy or prominent and know that tragedy or abjection awaits them, or vice versa. It may cause us to have more empathy for them. But it also heightens our sense of flux, cuts down our hubris to realize that however things are today, they likely won't be that way in a year, or five, or a hundred. Or perhaps they will. For me, the wonder lies in the fact that we simply can't know.

In The Noonday Demon, Andrew Solomon describes nostalgia as a mild to moderate symptom of depression. That characterization was a revelation for me. If you are always longing for the past, you can't fully taste the present and you're not fully alive. With Christodora, I wanted to vividly conjure New York City's recent past—and its suddenly fast-emerging future--as a way of throwing the present into high relief. What I tried to capture at the very end of the book, and what I try to capture for myself daily as I walk and re-walk the streets of this rambunctious city I love, is that we will never quite have this day—today--again. And isn't it a worthy practice to savor that as deeply as we may savor thoughts of what we've lost, or what's to come?


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