by Ellen O'Donohue Oddy
With protagonists who are beautiful but poor, witty but unemployed, this novel could easily be another tale of self-destruction via alcohol and fuckboys. Fortunately, it is the exact opposite.
Nowhere is the community of the global middle class more at home than in the soft pages of contemporary fiction. Our narratives are filled with pithy observations from intellectuals with just enough money to partake in nice furniture, and just enough morality to care deeply about climate change. They live in European capitals or small-state cities across America. Not that it matters, black coffee tastes the same everywhere. The details of their lives are kept vague and – in the hope that the reader studied a humanities degree – are instead filled with heavy-handed conceits and jokes that provoke a wry smirk.
Marlowe Granados’ Happy Hour, strangely, is both a profound articulation of this global intellectual community and its negative. We follow Isa the day she arrives in New York to begin a summer-long hustle with her friend Gala. With no work visa and dry bank accounts, they instead operate under an economy where ‘charm is currency’. Their inventive opportunism (or relentless pessimism) will feel familiar to readers who came of age during late capitalism. It doesn’t matter that they have only just arrived in the city; they already know everyone from Paris and London. As they are stateless, they are classless too, partying with the mega-rich with barely enough money to eat.
With protagonists who are beautiful but poor, witty but unemployed, this novel could easily be another tale of self-destruction via alcohol and fuckboys. Fortunately, it is the exact opposite. Isa’s story is more like a survival guide than that of a tragic heroine. She is hot, glamourous and gritty as fuck: we only glimpse the extent of her hangovers; the way the heat beats down on her dehydrated body is just hinted at, and the chaotic stress of having to charm her way to the next meal or a roof over her head occasionally rises to the surface. By playing down her struggle, Granados amplifies its severity. For Isa, climbing the rungs of New York society feels as adventurous, survivalist and thrilling as free solo climbing El Capitan.
Take the role food plays in the novel, for instance. Isa is hungry for most of the novel due to lack of funds and, most of the time, it seems easier to gamble on getting a $200 meal paid for her than a sustainable intake of dollar slices. When faced with New York’s most beautiful, trendy food, usually eaten opposite a dead personality picking up the cheque, she wolfs it down with unabashed pleasure. The dishes of Happy Hour play out the slipperiness of status and emptiness of value. By evening you’re drinking a French 45 at the plaza, by morning you’re waking up in a bed shared between three.
These moments become a tour of the city – happy hour oysters in hotels, salsa dancing over fish stew at a Spanish cafe, sticky watermelon on a beach, sour cherries at a party. In one scene towards the end of the book, Isa nods politely at an actor’s dull conversation as she fills her hands with smoked salmon blinis and oysters topped with Petrossian caviar. Whilst Ben Lerner might dangle a metaphor about existentialism over the delicate tentacles of fried baby squid, Marlowe Granados snaffles down the luxuries of the sea like her life depends on it. I know which one I prefer.
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Sometimes the narrative of Happy Hour feels unhinged, and you don’t know where the focus will be next, which can be hard to follow. At the same time this mirrors the freefall in which these characters live. This occasional shallowness of form allows for the bumps along the journey to be felt harder. One minute we are at an economic panel discussion, theorising on the 1%, the next we sit opposite a gold-toothed taxi driver who plays us a song about longing. There’s nothing like a capital city to let you sail through the lives of people briefly but meaningfully.
The narrative also holds back from giving us full access to Isa’s life. Events that happened during the summer of Happy Hour are burrowed away and only suggested much later in the narrative. In the same vein, sex is never spoken of but almost definitely happens. There is both a cynicism and a relief to this. On the one hand, we wonder (with a hint of concern) about the after parties and sleepovers Isa attends. On the other hand, Isa drinks in the beauty of men and her own sexuality without Granados allowing them to be dominant features in the narrative. They are mere decorations and are hung much lower than the centrepiece of Isa’s phenomenal outfits.
Another unspoken element of the book is Isa’s background. She and Gala are friends from school but where they grew up remains a secret. Similarly, Isa’s ethnicity is left vague – yet is a crucial element of how she connects with (or is disconnected by) various pockets of the city. Throughout the book, people approach her speaking Spanish, asking her if she is Native American, telling her she reminds them of Malaysia, or whispering that she’s someone’s Asian girlfriend. Granados does a clever job here of reminding us that race is often a concept built purely on othering by the white gaze. The only time we glimpse Isa’s relationship to her far away heritage is when she feels comfort in Queens, where bodegas sell pupusas and halo-halo.
If the body of Happy Hour is built around charm as currency, then its afterlife will be an interesting window into the literary value of the party girl. At their core, books are about the beautiful, but here we have a book where our narrator is not only an observer of beauty but in possession of that beauty too. Will the literary elite recognise this novel’s radical politics through its evocative descriptions of delicious outfits and summer tans? Like all other value constructs, I don’t think this author cares much.
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Ellen O'Donohue Oddy is a writer and radio host. She hosts Talking Notes on Subcity Radio and is currently writing her first manuscript of short stories. Find out more on her website.