All About Evenings

Happy Hour: A Novel by Marlowe Granados. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 288 pages. $20.
Marlowe Granados. Photo: May Truong.

Marlowe Granados’s debut novel, Happy Hour, follows two twentysomethings, Isa and Gala, as they navigate New York City in the summer of 2013. The pair make ends meet by working odd, off-the-clock jobs and charming everyone in their path. Published by Verso this fall, the book combines fun and glamour with Granados’s sharp sense of how moneyed society really works. Isa and Gala follow in the footsteps of party girls past while living in genuine precarity, but Granados insists that they needn’t suffer for it. For Bookforum, writer Alex Quicho recently caught up with Granados to talk about glamour, roguish heroines, writing, and the survival skills necessary for a night out in New York.

ALEX QUICHO: Glamour is associated with you and your persona—and Happy Hour is suffused with it. Where does your love for glamour come from and how do you keep it up?

MARLOWE GRANADOS: When we think of glamour, we look to old Hollywood, the real beginnings of it, and I was interested in those films from a very young age. I was also raised in what I always call “a matriarchy.” In families made up of strong women, there’s an element of preparing yourself to face the world, a particular understanding of presentation. I grew up with a single mother who was young and very divorced. A whole element of glamour to me was that we lived this funny little life together, me and my mother in a two-bedroom apartment. She’s listening to classic jazz standards and has all her shoes everywhere. It was embedded in my lineage to care about these things. In the novel, too, I try to imbue glamour with the idea of lineage, history, and womanhood that’s passed on.

For the second part of your question, How do I keep it up? It’s honestly very difficult to face the world while you’re trying to. When I go out, there are often altercations with some stranger—some man—who is annoyed by my existence. It always comes off as them really hating this kind of femininity and responding to it in a visceral way. For me, it’s also about surrounding myself with friends who strive for a very curated life—not even in any sort of postured way, I think it can be a natural way that you organize yourself. Like what you gravitate toward to make each day worthwhile or beautiful. Knowing how fragile that is and creating a community of like-minded people gives you a protective layer. That’s what Isa and Gala are—they’re a self-contained unit that protects themselves. There’s a sense that they have to be careful, knowing how delicate a certain presentation of femininity is in public.

Glamour is also related to a traditional kind of feminine power, a style of hyperfemininity that is often presented as a trap. I’m thinking about media centered around punishing women for daring to exist on their own terms. But you’ve said you wanted to write a book where nothing bad happens to the heroines. That’s surprisingly rare. I was wondering how you approached the idea of femininity, and the associated ideals of youth and girlhood, as you wrote Happy Hour?

There’s a line in the novel that says people always want pretty girls learning life lessons. There’s a lot of animosity toward young women. They’ve been given these “gifts,” and people think they need to act a certain way in order to be worthwhile . . . or else. That sense of consequence feels so untrue to the way that I’ve lived, and my friends have lived. I wanted the novel to be like a picaresque and the girls to be these little roguish heroes. They’re charming and wily and you can’t really trust them. I wanted a feminine version of that kind of book because I didn’t think that there was anything like it. I like the word “adventuress,” a term that was popular in the 1920s, ’30, and ’40s to describe a woman who rises ranks through unscrupulous means, a scallywag—a bit of a trickster. I wanted to put this archetype from the past into a contemporary setting and see how that economy would work. The novel Sister Carrie is one of my favorite books because she wins at the end. It’s a very unconventional story where all the men who tried to put her under their wing end up losing their fortunes. By the end, she becomes a famous actress, when “actress” was still considered a turn-of-the-century courtesan.

I have a real soft spot for stories like that. Can you talk a bit more about Isa and Gala’s relationship, and how you approached forming that intimacy? Sometimes they bristle in conflict and sometimes they’re completely in sync; each responds to the other’s energy, like a dancer. What were you inspired by?

There’s an element in a lot of Victorian novels—up until modernist novels—where there are two characters: one is the innocent, naive one and the other is the trickster. They propel the novel forward by balancing these energies out. To me, that’s such an interesting dynamic. You also see that in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—even the film adaptation has a blonde and a brunette. I think the strongest kind of friendship is the combination of creating memories and experiencing the world together, while also having conversations that help unravel those experiences. I like how you call them dancers because they can really turn it on when they need to and propel themselves forward. I wanted to write a novel where the protagonist was often the center of attention. She was making things happen in the room. I want to hear from the girl who everyone is talking about.

I didn’t want to write too much about race in the novel, because I think that can often pigeonhole you. But I wanted readers to understand that as another way that they balance each other out: Gala is blonde and white and she’s very reckless. She can do whatever. And Isa understands that Gala is free to do that. Isa is constantly taking into account everyone in the room. She understands fakery and authenticity and the way that Gala works. Gala complains that Isa is always so composed, but it’s true. Without Gala, Isa would just take the narrative wherever she wanted and the reader would have no sense of reality. Gala is her foil. She draws the reader back to reality and grounds them.

Yeah, I loved how you take the face off the elegant Rolex watch and show the delicate machinery behind being “carefree.” Doing what you want actually depends on a calculus, striking a balance between a need for safety and a need for spontaneity or fluidity.

I began writing by creating a monologue in Isa’s voice, where she’s explaining her whole life. Who she is, where she comes from, all these things. The language she uses is very controlled. She has all these rules. If Isa and Gala were truly carefree, they would probably not be mixing with all these people, but they need to make money and that puts a damper on their whole situation. I don’t think people understand how many things someone like Isa has to think about to make it a good night for everyone. To keep the situation light, to diffuse any sort of conflict. I thought it was important to illuminate that. Even the girls you think are empty-headed—they’re moving through the world in a skillful way.

That makes me think about Semiotext(e) press, how their shift from publishing continental philosophy to autofiction or autotheory coincided with a gendered question. Writers like Chris Kraus aimed to rehabilitate gossip and emotion as being as rigorous as anything else, because there was—and still is—so much resistance to taking whisper-network knowledge, or other “feminine wiles,” seriously. So, I’m glad you're coming out with a radical press like Verso.

A lot of publishers that looked at the book before Verso were a little bit like, Maybe she should lean on her whole woman of color thing . . .

OK, well, let’s talk about that. In Happy Hour, there are moments when Isa is made to notice her difference by others, like when she’s paparazzied and they describe her as an “exotic” girl. But she doesn’t ruminate on the limitations and fatedness of a racialized existence. I appreciated how that ambivalence gave her more depth and agency, as a character, when it came to navigating the everyday realities of gender and race.

That’s true to my experience. When I was young, I did not have academic words for everything I felt, like pointing out an act of misogyny. I just knew deep down that it felt wrong. I wanted that to be real, because it’s not like Isa and Gala are getting their BAs here. And I don’t need to say these girls are illegal immigrants and one of them is not white. One came from the former Yugoslavia. But it’s very much about the weird parts, like the bureaucracy of immigration. All these things that you wouldn’t necessarily notice, but afterwards you realize that Isa and Gala are living very precarious lives. They can’t go to the hospital because they’re worried they might get in trouble. They’re just like, “I guess I can’t go to the hospital. I can’t talk about the fact that I’m not allowed to legally work.” It’s there in the novel, if you want to look for it.

To wrap up: someone asks Isa if she’s a mystic, and she’s like, “No, I’m an aphorist.” I want to ask how you observe the world and distill it. Does it come naturally?

So much of it is based on conversations. When I was a hostess, I would write on pads and on old menus and stuff. And as a conversationalist, you become better at storytelling. I put so much of my socializing into this novel. I would hope that that comes through—it is really built out of life. Not necessarily my exact life or my friends but a combination of experiences and kinships. Having those truths come from natural encounters: I hope that strengthens the novel and makes it feel authentic. A lot of writing can seem so closed off from the world, but this novel was not written like that. Isa is very kind. Being generous in how you think about people takes so much more work. Even when she’s being critical, she can flip it so it could also be a compliment. I wanted to show that ultimately, she’s a good-natured character. A party girl with a heart of gold.

Alex Quicho’s work has appeared in the New Inquiry, Real Life, the White Review, and other publications. Her book Small Gods: Perspectives on the Drone was published this summer by Zer0 Books