Party Going

You Are Having a Good Time: Stories BY Amie Barrodale. FSG Originals. Paperback, 208 pages. $14.

“I had a prescription for a low-milligram antianxiety medication, as well as a mild beta blocker,” a man explains in Amie Barrodale’s icy, masterful first short-story collection, You Are Having a Good Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14), “and I kept going into the bathroom to take more—I wanted to get the mixture right. After I took a pill, I’d check myself in the mirror, and I’d always be surprised at what I found. I kept expecting to find a monster.” It’s almost uncivilized how precisely Barrodale renders life as a banal grotesquerie in which you have the wherewithal to decide nothing: “You went to a party one time,” a writing professor says. “You were sort of maybe half invited. You spoke to a girl, and you felt like she ignored you. You spoke to another girl, and it seemed like she ignored you, too. . . . That’s it. Everything spun from a habit you formed one night, at a party when you felt you were ignored.” Like precocious teens, like needy male novelists, like those whose investment in their superior self-actualization is rivaled only by the precariousness of their self-esteem, Barrodale’s characters are the sort whose lives might indeed hinge on a party.

We’re a long way from the cool-tongued persona of Joan Didion’s bildungsroman-y “Goodbye to All That”: “I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand . . . that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.” Didion’s adults know better than to wait for last call. They have a learned aversion to miracles. Didion writes of herself at twenty-eight: “I no longer had any interest in hearing . . . about people I would like very much if only I would come out and meet them. I had already met them, always.” By contrast, for Barrodale’s open, unresisting protagonists, every stranger is full of stories—the “weirdo factor” is so high, and so naturally drawn, that one cannot help but get excited at the range Barrodale might bring to a novel: “I told a story about my aunt,” a woman says.

She had been in the Bolshoi Ballet, and then she got a degree in quantum mechanics from Rice. Then she tried to run her husband over in a parking lot, and she was fired, and years went by, and she was arrested for disorderly conduct in Houston. She was in the drunk tank with her boyfriend and my mom picked her up. When she came out, she said, “Patty, I think that police officer raped me,” and her boyfriend, who was still in the tank, cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Both of ’em did, baby.” I laughed at the story, but I could tell it made the drummer uneasy.

Barrodale’s are self-aware narrators (“I don’t think I will describe her kitchen”) who collect these stories and cling to them with relish. It’s a rhetorical solution to the lack of possibilities for action in their own lives, which are short on plot (whether because of fate or fault, or some conflation of the two). They want something to happen; they don’t have anything better to do. Unlike Didion—more like readers of contemporary fiction, perhaps—they are indifferent to the idea of having a good time. That’s beside the point. The point is to remember the weird shit that happens to them, or just to conclude that anything that happens to them is weird: “I got out of bed, went to the kitchen, and ate a handful of Brazil nuts,” a man says. “I stood in front of the sink. I can say these things now. At the time I couldn’t even think them to myself in an honest way.” If a character has an epiphany or falls in love—most commonly, they have the epiphany to fall out of it—you can bet it will have little to no effect on his personality. At the end of “William Wei,” the narrator explains, his aborted affair with a prank caller: “The sorts of things I thought during that time, while I sat there, I can never really say. It was heavy . . . I think I can safely say it changed my life.” But both the tone of his present-day monologue and the squalid reality it describes have already deftly undercut our usual definition of life-changing: “I live in a really small apartment. A lot of my clothes end up piled on my mattress or draped over the open door of the microwave.”

It’s this perverse, quotidian heroism that I love. Barrodale’s are a people who do not need to present their epiphanies as having any visible symptoms—it’s enough just to feel changed. To think of your life as being led in your head—as a story you’re always writing—is to allow yourself to expand creatively on it. “He communicated, in the silence, that she was a better actor and a better person than Richard Dreyfuss,” an actress thinks of a sadistic movie director. “And the funny thing was, she believed it.” Optimists, masochists—these people choose consistently to believe that they can profit from any and all human interaction. “It felt like he was needling her,” the actress admits. Then changes her mind: “Or making something private between them into art.”

Barrodale elevates anecdotes into art, something another character accuses her new love interest of failing to do: “He said their waitress drew a diagram to show the path of the bullet that shot Kennedy in the head. He wasn’t a very good storyteller, and I could see he was trying to say there was some kind of magic in the moment, but to me it just sounded like a thing a waitress told people.” That kind of magic does favor Barrodale herself, who is preternaturally imaginative—outlandishly so, to the point of being wrong, ironic, or gross. When a man is sickened by his wife—“At dinner, my wife talked about semaphores, possible synchronization problems, and her junior staff. I often felt worn down when she spoke. I felt frustrated, then nauseated. I realized that I would be sick”—it reminds me of the young lover’s monologue in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore. Nausea is noble. She throws up right after he proposes. Which is to say: This book is sick.

Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Brooklyn.