Party Favor

Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time by sheila liming. brooklyn, ny: melville house. 256 pages. $28.

The cover of Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time

LAST WEEKEND I WENT to a party where people were wearing black lipstick, tropical shirts, chokers, and little drink umbrellas behind their ears. That was because the theme was “Hot Topic in the Tropics.” Many of the same people had recently been at another party where we danced on an Astroturf rooftop at a house rumored to be owned by the daughter of a famous dead novelist where there was a bathtub full of beers. Most of us had met at a succession of parties held in different cities over the course of more than a decade: birthday parties, magazine parties, dinner parties, parties where all we did was toss dice into cups of beer.

What is the point of all these parties? If I replay them as a supercut montage in my mind, they are essentially an endless stream of brief conversations, often short and banal, occasionally profound; I see large groups of people bumping into each other in dark living rooms and bars and restaurants. What are we actually doing, and why do we keep coming back? These questions animate the first chapter of Sheila Liming’s book Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time. She writes about parties, good and bad, themed and not. This is, of course, in the shadow of a pandemic: “What were parties, I have found myself asking, wondering, remembering?” Liming writes. “To what extent is our collective social survival bound up with the ability, or will, to experience them?”

Hanging Out is divided into chapters based on activities, including “Hanging Out at Parties” and “Hanging Out on the Internet.” Liming braids her own experiences with criticism, anecdotes from others, and bits of history to gesture at a more general portrait of hanging out, one that is also supposed to double as a defense of it. In the introduction, she argues for “the reclaiming of time, which is both the essence of hanging out and its main ingredient.” And who could be against that? The book, which has many moments of sharp and vivid writing, suffers from being packaged as a manifesto, in the mode of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing. In positing a defense of something normal that has been taken away from us by a variety of rapacious factors—technology, capitalism, bad mayors, cost-cutting bosses—it is not saying anything that is untrue, just articulating something that many of us already know.

Although the book is arguing for something nearly universal, the author shapes the narrative through stories of her own highly specific experiences. Liming focuses on her twenties and thirties: itinerant, low-paycheck-but-high-degree years spent building a career in academia in the shadow of the financial crash. We are in Aberdeen, Pittsburgh, Grand Forks, rural Washington State, Vermont. She plays in bands and works in bars and goes to academic conferences and occasionally fancy dinners with university chancellors that she can’t quite afford. So, the hanging out she’s defending is the hanging out she’s done. And why not? It mostly sounds fun. These activities structure the book, in chapters like, “Jamming as Hanging Out,” “Hanging Out at Work,” and “Hanging Out on TV.” (This latter is one of the most potentially compelling chapters, if only because it’s so unusual. It covers the time Liming spent with a budding reality TV star who had to restage her own parties for television.) Liming isn’t claiming to be comprehensive, but the first-person focus does leave some major holes: What of sports, I wondered, which might very well be the most common backdrop for hanging out in the entire world? What of meeting friends at soccer bars in the early morning, or taking the subway full of desperate hope to a late-season Yankees game with a newish friend, only to share in the rain delay and the ultimate despair? 

But I forgive Liming for these lapses, in part because her chapter on parties is so richly drawn. It’s a layered exploration of social dynamics and contains some textured literary criticism. And it makes sense that Liming is so interesting on parties: they’re the apotheosis of hanging out. She describes those she has attended (a Mardi Gras–themed party in North Dakota, a party in college where people dressed as what they would like to be in ten years) as well as those described in film and literature. She reads Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, zeroing in on the sad scene of Mick Kelly’s party. She writes about Henry Green’s novel Party Going and Audre Lorde’s poem “The Electric Slide Boogie.”

Whit Stillman, Metropolitan, 1990. From left: Chris Eigeman, Edward Clements, Allison Parisi, Dylan Hundley. Courtesy The Criterion Collection
Whit Stillman, Metropolitan, 1990. From left: Chris Eigeman, Edward Clements, Allison Parisi, Dylan Hundley. Courtesy The Criterion Collection

Through these vivid readings, Liming creates the tentative beginning of a canon of literary parties that I found so intriguing that I could not help wanting to add to it—the scenes at Bellomont in House of Mirth, perhaps, or the prairie dances in My Ántonia. As Liming shows, to read about these parties in books and to see them in films—to consider other people’s parties, fictional or not—might provide a blurry prism into our own. At these gatherings, everything collides: desire, anxiety, ebullience, loneliness, belonging, longing—the whole texture of the human social experience crammed into a few elevated hours. It’s hard to read Liming and not think about other portrayals of parties, my own touchstones. My syllabus—which would be as random, in some ways, as Liming’s and any other—would include, for instance, Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan. In that movie, nothing much happens, just hanging out. It follows a group of students home in New York over winter break; a young man named Tom Townsend gets swept into an endless scene of late-night parties without really meaning to. The parties turn sour sometimes; there is even a fight. And yet, like me, these students keep turning up and staying up. Why? Because it plays into the most necessary fictions of partying—that it will keep going on forever, that the night is endless, and the partygoers are in a world of their own. The great danger of going out is simply staying too long, buying too far into the fantasy that the night could be sustained forever. (Mark Strand: “We began to believe / the night would not end. / Someone was saying the music was over and no one had noticed.”)

And then there is Henry Green’s Party Going, which Liming touches on and which is one of the best books about hanging out. As Liming notes, the book is basically about a failure to party, as a group of socialites who had been en route to a party become waylaid by fog in a railway hotel. They have minor meltdowns, wait for updates, feel desperate and indecisive about whether to stay or go. “The irony of the situation, of course, is that Green’s characters are all there together. They constitute a group, a faction, a party, in a technical and pure sense. But they are not where parties are supposed to take place for people like them, and this makes them miserable,” Liming writes. Despite it all, the dream of the party—the difference it might make in their lives—remains vivid. Then, they are about to get on the train, and Julia, alternately despairing and eager, is filled with expectation once again: “She hoped this party would be, if she could get a hold of Max, it would be as though she could take him back into her life from where it had started and show it to him for them to share in a much more exciting thing of their own, artichokes, pigeons and all, she thought and laughed out loud.” This remarkable sentence reveals that the party—that very public event—is really meant to lead somewhere deeply private, into life right back to where it had started, a deep intimacy with a single person. And yet that intimacy would be impossible, unthinkable, without the performance, the mechanics, and the orchestration of the party that might lead them there (even though it probably won’t).

There are many dreams at the beginning of parties, and they are rarely, if ever, fulfilled. Of course, sometimes we do kiss the person we want to kiss or we do find ourselves in a conversation that will change our life. And often we have fun. But I am more interested in the dreams that sustain these parties, interior dreams we are acting out in the public sphere, like Julia in Party Going. “Whatever the occasion that prompts it, a party is about hope,” Liming writes. “We throw parties . . . in order to fashion containers for the preservation of hope.”

To get to the heart of things, we must go out into the world, and we keep doing it, because sometimes, in rare and crystalline moments, we do manage to fulfill this ineffable desire, surrounded by friends, our laughter ringing out, seeming to fill an endless silence, and feeling like the night will never end.

Sophie Haigney is a critic, journalist, and the web editor of the Paris Review