The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘parties’

A New Secret

November 12, 2015 | by

John Singer Sargent, The Birthday Party, 1887.

“It’s weird,” my brother, Charlie, said. “Lately a lot of my friends have been talking about learning things about their parents.”

“You mean, secrets?” said my mother. It was her birthday; we were having lunch. Read More »

Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs

September 1, 2015 | by

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More »

Copious Free Time

June 9, 2015 | by


A postcard, ca. 1910.

“Why are narcissists always talking about how busy they are?” my friend wondered as we left the party. At this party, a certain narcissist had been droning on about how much she had to do; how she really shouldn’t be there; that she would be leaving any moment. The implication had been, I suppose, that she was far busier than anyone else—or at least that her docket of tasks was more important. Or that she was more conscientious, maybe. I’m not sure. But it did seem to signify a failure to live in the moment, as it were.

This is a type most of us have encountered at one point or another. Two stand out in my mind—a college professor and the manager of a restaurant where I worked one summer. Both liked to talk, constantly, about how frantically busy they were. But more than this, both of these people were fond of a certain phrase: in my copious free time. As in, “Yes, yet another thing for me to do in my copious free time,” or, “Thanks, Bob! We all know how much I need to fill my copious free time!” or, “I think we all know who’s going to end up doing that—with all my copious free time.” Read More »

Urgent Questions for Librarians, and Other News

June 2, 2015 | by


A question to an NYPL librarian from October 1976. Photo: NYPL, via the Guardian

  • “My idea of hell on earth,” Philip Larkin wrote once, “is a literary party.” He had in mind the Oxford parties of his era, which, much like the Oxford parties of this era, comprised “a lot of sherry drill with important people.” But what if those parties were in fact really entertaining, as at least one guest avows they were? “God, they were fun. Ever since Mrs. Dylan Thomas, at a literary party, stuck her elbow into the bowl of ice cream that T. S. Eliot was eating from, before presenting it to the great poet with the instruction to ‘Lick it off,’ these things have been democratic, argumentative and often memorable.”
  • “Please give me the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs?” “What is the significance of the hip movement in the Hawaiian dance?” “Is it good poetry where every other line rhymes, instead of having each line rhyme with the one before it?” Questions for librarians at the New York Public Library before there was the Internet.
  • Saul Bellow’s portraitist remembers their encounter: “Bellow talked all the while, about life in New York when he was younger, his cohorts and various writers. What a duplistic moment for me: I had to ask him to be quiet so I could take some close-ups. He was fidgety even while cooperating. He picked up a book of Shakespeare’s sonnets and began reading, first quietly, and then aloud. I listened for a few minutes, and cringing apologetically, shushed him again.”
  • If Louise Erdrich could go back in time, she’d go to prison, as long as the company was good: “I am stranded for a few days in a comfortable jail cell with Walt Whitman and Henry James. I take one side of the room, share a bunk with Emily Dickinson. We listen in on their awkward conversations, exchange sharp glances of amusement.”
  • Max Mathews, who died in April, wasn’t the first person to make sounds with a computer—but his experiments with an IBM 704 mainframe in 1957 were the first to use “a replicable combination of hardware and software that allowed the user to specify what tones he wanted to hear.” He was the first computer musician: “He provided the initial research for virtually every aspect of computer music, from his early work with programming languages for synthesis and composition … to foundational research in real-time performance … Max also helped start the conversation about how humans were meant to interact with computers by developing everything from modified violins to idiosyncratic control systems such as the Radio Baton.”

The Talking Cure

April 27, 2015 | by

Commuters in Lower Manhattan, 1973.

Urban life is full of glorious opportunities to hear people talking to themselves. I don’t mean mentally ill people; it doesn’t delight me to see somebody visibly ill. No, what I mean is the triumph of unself-consciousness that you can regularly witness on the streets, where all of us reliably utter short, throwaway remarks to no one in particular. We don’t do this for others’ benefit, but when someone else overhears such a remark, everything comes together and harmonizes and, for all the world, it’s as if life has a narrator. E.g.: Read More »

Party Line

April 7, 2015 | by


Not Nabokov’s kind of place.

Reading about the parties of decades past, it sometimes seems they were all similar, and all awful—or at least that they had an intolerably high jerk quotient. Think of the celebrations in Cheever novels, or O’Hara stories: full of jerks, everyone drunk and uncouth and parochial.

It should come as no shock that Vladimir Nabokov took a jaundiced view of the midcentury American party. In fact, were I some hapless Wellesley or Ithaca hostess, you couldn’t have paid me enough to invite him to a dinner or sherry hour, even after he became a literary sensation. Imagine the appraisal you’d be in for—his curled lip, his chilly politeness, his scathing mental commentary, his careful evasion of the menu’s vulgarities. For your trouble, you’d be caricatured, at best, as some sort of composite Charlotte Haze–esque grotesque, fawning over his manners and dripping with self-assured provincialism. And that would be the good outcome. It’s hard to think of someone you’d want less at a midcentury faculty tea, save maybe a seething Shirley Jackson. 

The following comes from Nabokov’s 1951 story “The Vane Sisters.” Read More »