OCTOBER 22, 2021
FOR THE LAST DECADE, I have labored as a bartender in a cluster of venues and dives in New York. Following the city’s slipshod reopening in May, I have been subjected, while behind the bar, to a pervasive lament: “I don’t know how to act at bars anymore.” For too long, we have been estranged from small talk and large groups, late-night encounters with a carousel of strangers. Nearly everyone seems to be complaining about the surreality of our return to social life, the confusions and anxieties consequent to wide-scale reacclimatization to public space. (In July, Twitter was inundated for a week with the question of whether “the vibes are off in New York.”)
It is commonplace to mourn the demise of a great city — New York and Los Angeles perish every third week of the month for someone, somewhere — but as we enter a seventh season of rolling event cancellations, it is perhaps timelier to wonder: are we reckoning with the death of the party as we knew it? Of course, death, too, is now a guest at any party: in a plague that spreads through person-to-person contact, it permeates every possible encounter.
I’ve been preoccupied with the politics of the party in our pandemic year(s) — not only how social media gossip concerning stealthy celebrity get-togethers during the height of the 2020 lockdown recast socializing as immoral but also, more generally, how we memorialize the transgressions and pleasures of our partying youth during what seems to be a new era of cultural puritanism. As Eve Babitz had it, a descent into hell after death was inadvisable, largely because it meant that, in heaven, “other people were having a party to which you weren’t invited”; still, who among us hasn’t been trapped at a party as painful as any vision of hell we could conjure? Increasingly I question the substantive pleasures of partying and whether we who inhabit cultural capitals like New York and Los Angeles truly experience joy in the interminable sea of such happenings — or if we merely exaggerate the excitement of our social lives in order to avoid seeing parties for what they often are: clout-diversification opportunities.
In its barbed appraisal of New York’s hypercompetitive social scene, Marlowe Granados’s debut novel, Happy Hour, plumbs this tension between the occasional thrill of the party and the tiresome morass of navigating its cartographies. Unsteady on my feet at a house party recently, I scanned the crowd to find that most of the faces were likewise surveying, seeking out the next conversation, the next bump, the next money move. I thought in that moment of Granados’s party-girl protagonist Isa Epley, who talks like Babitz and navigates the New York scene like one of Edith Wharton’s heroines, and who notes that “typical New York conversation [is] two people waiting for their turn to talk.” A party, in short, might be nothing more than a yearning collision of discontinuous egos. The thrill is empty; maybe it always was.
Happy Hour is a time capsule from the summer of 2013, a classic New York tale of two gal pals struggling to secure coveted positions in a post-Girls millennial landscape. Formally, it is staged as the first-person diary of Isa, an international young-woman-about-town who has gifted herself her name, whose ambiguous ethnicity is a frequent fixation of those who orbit her, and who either does nothing or — alternatively, miraculously — a little bit of everything. Her best friend Gala Novak is, unlike the never-without-a-safety-net women of Lena Dunham’s show, a “former Yugoslavian, so she’s familiar with suffering in ways that other white girls are not.” The two land a stall at a fashionable resale market in the then-rapidly gentrifying (now largely gentrified) neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and sublet a single bedroom in an apartment nearby, at which they hardly stay at all, instead hopping from club to bar to house party. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Through her portrait of Isa and Gala and the crowd that swirls around them, Granados broadly satirizes the cultural class of model-artists, fuckboy bartenders, hip gallerists, and secretly wealthy layabouts of Brooklyn and Manhattan (the only boroughs, for a certain type). With finger-licking delight, she reveals the hollowness at the center of the matryoshka doll that is the city’s social networking apparatus. And in unknotting and taxonomizing the navigational rules of this labyrinthine apparatus — while centering The Education of Isa Epley as its moral and aesthetic arc — the author makes the classic novel of manners our cocaine contemporary, revising its narratives to insinuate that, in matters of social (if not economic and structural) power, there is, in large part, no there there. The allegedly high-octane discourse of the city’s cultural elite is shown instead to be both dreadfully dull and without meaningful content, while the willowy girls we envy are in point of fact talentless hacks who have leveraged their class status to negotiate transitions into the art world after aging out of modeling. Regarding the burly behemoths we lust after, “[t]he mind reels with all the possibilities of what they might feel or think about you. Usually it is nothing like what you expect and much less complex than the thoughts you generally assign to them.” One falls asleep next to a Herculean enigma and wakes beside an alcoholic brute who speaks little because he has nothing to say.
The bubbly patter of Happy Hour arrives at a serious, globally-grief-stricken moment; it is a party girl novel after a year without parties. Bracingly bridling at our expectations, it revels in an erotics of excess, while never losing its shrewd observational eye. Though she pantomimes superiority over those she perceives as climbers, Isa herself is a consummate hustler, capable of wheedling her way with ease into odd jobs, a famous actor’s good graces, weekends in the Hamptons, and stopgap housesitting opportunities when her own sublet becomes untenable. Isa’s New York is one of endless social possibility twinned tensely with its opposite, the digital-age terror of missing out on The Perfect Party.
For all her feeling that things will come out in the wash — a deeply New York mythos — there is an early insinuation of potential violence (“late at night, a girl turns into a moving target”), and the fog of grief over her mother’s death is just barely held at bay for the novel’s duration. This apprehensive sense of lingering doom situates the novel precisely in its historical moment — the second Obama term, with its desperate insistence on a last-chance/dance faith in progress, a hope that the world might be getting better even as the news only kept getting worse.
Isa’s philosophical predilections veer toward the aphoristic: of romance, she avows that “[a]nything less than love makes people feel guilty”; she understands implicitly that “one should always be making moves”; “[g]rief is a currency,” she muses (although one she “will not use”); and she believes “[i]t’s true that some parties end before they even begin.” Isa’s talent for maxims — Anabel, an older female painter who provides her with work as a life model and babysitter, imagines her as “a mystic” — is a sensibility that seems forged in fire, an attempt to restore order to the increasingly chaotic world through which she flits like a glittering hummingbird.
As the social life she’s cobbled together begins to unravel — she cuts off the man she pines after; she and Gala have a possibly friendship-ending fight; her trip to the Hamptons soaks up her remaining funds and undercuts her self-confidence — Isa’s wry account of the Brooklyn culturati devolves into a meditation on her own grief and aimlessness. In its deferral until the very end of such self-interrogation, the novel unveils its sense that a truly great party — or a summer’s span of them — displaces temporality, allowing its supplicants to reside, if only for a time, in the reckless joy of the present tense. But one cannot skim the surface of pleasing witticisms and random encounters forever; “[t]he past weighs on the future,” Isa thinks. Even Eve Babitz knew heartbreak.
A conventional novel of manners would likely coalesce around the closed circuit of the marriage plot. Instead, Happy Hour loops back to its own beginning, with Isa, having diarized her New York summer, now getting ready to recount this selfsame story to a publisher. Rather than being married off, she is inaugurated into the marketplace through authorship. If one cannot undo the system, perhaps one can at least dictate its terms. Because, like Babitz, Granados understands that the power of an effective writer lies in her capacity to “change the boundaries of heaven.” And like any seasoned party girl, Isa knows that half the pleasure of the party is in the retelling.