Mon. Jan 24th, 2022


The first party I went to after the end of Cape Town’s second hard restraint was a complete failure, so bad it was almost as if a category mistake had been made. The ingredients were there, I thought – pals, music, a reason to celebrate, alcohol – but some basic ingredient or catalyzing power was absent, so instead of a party it was just a few adults who were in standing around a house. It was horrible to see, bordering on the strange, like seeing many people forget how to ride a bike at the same time. People had arguments over television. A woman (I) cried. Everyone’s sense of personal space was completely down, so we all either swung too close to each other and made punitive eye contact for too long, or stood at least eight feet apart, like trapped birds backed against the kitchen cabinets. , shouting strange, boring observations across the room in a parody of conversation.

The reasons for the failure were not mysterious: a too hasty climb to the surface after spending months underwater, which became freakish in adapting to our cold hostile environments. I have since given sharp, possibly appalling attention to the necessary structural components of parties and stored this information in case we ever run the risk of ending up in a similar situation again.

In the past year, I have had many more opportunities to observe these features in fiction than I have in real life. But fictitious parties and real parties have a lot in common and, if performed correctly, perform similar functions, lighting smelters that will go off weeks or chapters later.

With that in mind, I have compiled a list of the characteristics that must be present for a party to be good, or memorable, or even to register at all successfully as a party, moving beyond the basic elements that are in me innocence I I thought was all that was needed. (My cut-off date is the beginning of the 20th century. Dancing in 19th-century novels tends to fulfill a more obvious burden-bearing function, in that it is often the only credible narrative setting by which a writer can get people who need it). falling in love in the same room together. Parties are less important, but more complicated.)

As well as people, music and a reason to celebrate, you need at least two or more of the following in combination: a highly anticipated guest, ideally a new person or someone who is long gone; an inner sanctuary for smaller groups to do private business – it is best, though not essential, if these groups have only recently been formed; a core group; an intimidating element to be won; an enemy, ideally a general one, for purposes of bondage; unequal awareness of a potentially disturbing piece of information; a commitment to make hay in the shadow of the gathering of storm clouds; bags of sexual tension; evidence of recruitment from different social universes; a mixture of ages; people who have to fall in love with each other; and a collective recognition that it can not last. Extra points if the party is in an unexpected place or involved a long or uncomfortable trip.

Not to be a traditionalist, but in addition to all that, the slight decency of life must be observed. It’s best if the party takes place in the evening, and although drugs may, perhaps even should, be present, they may not play too central a role. In other words, the party can not be over drugs, so no monologues from anyone on amphetamines, and absolutely no stream of consciousness from anyone hallucinating. Exceptions can be made for all other prescriptions, but these are important.

These traits appear in the set pieces of the great 20th-century party prize winners – F Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green. Not all at once, but enough to create the unpredictable conditions needed for a party to work, for events to turn in exciting directions, for people to decide that they are in love with each other after 10 minutes , for a bomb to explode. whose echoes will be felt throughout the story. They are everywhere, when you know what to look for.

Walking to a party in Gaborone, Botswana, the narrator of Norman Rush’s Paring says, “It’s become the kind of scene you want to be a writer for so you can capture a transient unique form of social anxiety that is experienced in every way by people except the observer.” A fictional party is often a writer’s best opportunity to get her characters to perform – for example, to give them a dialogue that is only realistic at a party when they are showing off – to radically increase input in response to the elements above.


In James Joyce’s story “The Dead”, for example, the much anticipated guest is Gabriel Conroy, the highly tense cousin of the ladies of the house (core group), whose late arrival drives the story into action (Freddy Malins always came late, but they wondered what could hold Gabriel: and that was what they brought to the stairwells every two minutes to ask Lily for Gabriel or Freddy to come ”).

All sorts of potentially disturbing information floats around in “The Dead”: Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, sows over a man, Freddy Malins can not stop drinking and Gabriel’s wife Gretta was once in love with someone else. Miss Ivor’s moral clarity on Irish nationalism provides the intimidating element, at least for Gabriel, and the staircase serves as the inner sanctuary – characters constantly retreat there to have fierce exchanges or to brood over the sweetness of their wives.

People remember the Thatcher party at Alan Hollinghurst’s The line of beauty, but Toby’s 21st birthday party a few chapters earlier is the better one: inner sanctuary, intimidating element (when Nick wanders into Toby’s bedroom, where some guests have retreated, he sees “the charm as well as the threat of the group”) . evidence of recruitment from different social universes if you assume that within the world of the novel there is an insurmountable gap between a higher-middle-class Oxford graduate and an Oxford graduate with a title.

In JD Salinger’s short story Raise the roof beam high, Carpenters, a group of almost strangers retreat to the Glass family apartment (unexpected venue) after Seymour Glass failed to appear at his own wedding. There’s the intimidating core group to be won in the form of the enraged servant, her husband and an outraged aunt (“a rather forbidden integrated party of three”) and there’s the disturbing snippet of information (Seymour is going to kill himself soon) and the Inner Sanctuary, where Buddy Seymour’s diary will be read.


At Bridget’s party at Edward St Aubyn’s Some Hope, Princess Margaret acts as the most invigorating awful common enemy anyone could ask for – after the French ambassador spilled sauce on her and forced him to clean her up, she announced in the appalling cold of the room that she was not silent do not approve. and wish Noël Coward was there to lift the spirits. The party is in a house in the country (element of travel) and there is more potentially disturbing information than anyone knows what to do (Patrick’s revelations about his childhood, all to their eyes in infidelity, Bridget’s treatment of her mother). There is a good mix of ages, and evidence of recruitment from different social universes if you assume again there is a gap between different types of very rich people.

Outstanding literary parties tend to take place in a higher-class milieu, but need not. Zadie Smith’s White teeth opens with an “End of the World” party (gathering hay in the shade of storm clouds), where Archie and Clara meet and decide to fall in love, which determines the course of the novel. Denis Johnson’s story “Two Men” begins at one party, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall, and moves to another, in a cornfield (element of travel), where a group of intimidating strangers listen to jazz and point out errors. . Nothing really happens at the party, but it still works like a magic trick, in that it makes the protagonist’s seemingly incomprehensible decisions understandable from that point on. This is what the best literary parties do – pull characters together, put pressure on them, then let the power of that pressure push them in as many different directions as possible.

This story is part of the FT Magazine package “Tales from the Dancefloor”, with the work of selected photographers, Caleb Azumah Nelson on the magic of a good DJ – and six FT authors who best party they’ve ever attended



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