It's the new black.
In Conversation With is our new series responding to pieces in national media. Today we’re taking a look at Ian Crouch’s The Curse of Reading and Forgetting in The New Yorker.
This is your guide to surviving the Cocktail Party Trap: the scenario, as Crouch describes, when someone mentions a book you read but can’t quite remember. When entering the trap, please remember the author’s name, the title of the book, and if you’re lucky, the gender of the protagonist or narrator (manipulating gender politics in order to impress your interlocutors is key to the exercise, if slightly immoral). If you can’t remember one of those facts , Google it quickly while your interlocutor is chugging her vodka tonic but for heaven’s sakes don’t get caught.
CHATTERER #1: … And my nephew reminds me so much of Philip in his France period. You know [pause to scan your reaction], Of Human Bondage?
YOU [VAGUELY RECOLLECTING SOMETHING ABOUT PARIS AND MAUGHAM] Of course.
— The key is to let others speak first, while listening with a wry smile on your face. The wry smile indicates you are weighing their indubitably inane comments against the body of critical analysis you have stored in your memory. –
CHATTERER #2: So how are his brushstrokes?
CHATTERER #1 [THE ONE WITH THE HOPELESS NEPHEW]: As common as his women.
CHATTERER #2: You should suggest medical school and a trip to Brighton, then.
CUE KNOWING LAUGHTER.
–This is the Inside Joke Test. Your interlocutors have giggled over something that Only People Who Read will really know. You must laugh with them and then add a Knowing Question to slightly redirect the conversation into the abstract narrative considerations which are much easier to B.S. –
YOU [LAUGH DRILY, THEN ASK LIKE YOU ARE DISPASSIONATELY INTERESTED]: You know, I think about those two episodes – Brighton and Paris – and I wonder which really exemplifies the book’s ambivalence towards women. What do you think?
—Score for using two episodes previously mentioned and saying “ambivalence towards women.” Male authors are always ambivalent about women. With women, use “relationship to the patriarchy.” –
CHATTERER #2: Good for you for remembering. [YOU: ASS.] I would say Brighton, really; the twisting of his relationship with Mildred is so apparent –
CHATTERER #1 [EAGER TO PROVE WORTHINESS OF INTELLECT AND EXISTENCE]: — The flipping of both the marital state and the mistress construct –
YOU: The unraveling of the dirty mistresses’ club, eh?
— Points for making a Grey’s reference. Lost a point for using “eh.”–
CHATTERER #2: — And the fact that the child is a girl, of course.
YOU: Well, obviously.
–Points for making Chatterer #2 feel obvious. This is not a game for nice people. –
YOU: As much as I hate to say it, it’s hard to ignore the Oedipalism, especially towards the end.
— Oedipus, Freud, and Madonna/Whore are indispensible tools in your cocktail party arsenal. For female authors, it’s safer to stick with Mulvey and the male gaze. Also, referencing the end of the book subliminally communicates that a) you finished it and b) this conversation is almost over. —
CHATTERER #1: He does get to marry his mother! [IN A LAPSE OF JUDGEMENT, SHE SAYS] I hadn’t thought about that. [NEVER ADMIT WEAKNESS.] He embraces the panacea, the constructed ideal of the dead mother to absolve his past sins —
YOU: You were saying about your nephew?
— Drink your martini like a boss. —
How do you handle literary chatter at social events when key facts have, ah, slipped your mind?