Prolific as they are, declarative statements about what New York City is or isn’t, or how to be or not be in it, are useless. For one thing, you will always find someone willing to fight you with a singular anecdote or mantra or entire life story that refutes whatever claim you’re making. For another, taking an impish stand on something that doesn’t actually matter for the glint of insider glamour you think it brings — “I never go below/above 14th street,” “I’d never eat within a 10 block radius of Time Square,” etc. — only cuts you off from some other experience you might otherwise have, or some coy position you might want to take five years from now. Declarative statements about the city are made more to impose the gloss of an aesthetic vision than to convey any sort of immutable truth, though compelling words can always convince; after all, everyone’s got an idol — from Nora Ephron to James Baldwin to Zadie Smith — who has made their proclamations about what it means to live and let live here.
Isa, the narrator of Marlowe Granados’s debut novel Happy Hour, recognizes all of this, mostly because she is a sharp observer of how people — especially wealthy young transplants — often need an edgy analytical position and style to feel they will succeed and be seen in the city. However, the novel is dotted with the declarative statements she makes about herself and life with Gala, a friend with whom she has moved to the city to eke out an existence in the summer of 2013: “I am always more comfortable being a fixture than a possibility.” “Being a young girl is always a cute trick.” “You can’t go reeling around New York.” “My urgency is what gives me character. . . . I can devastate just about anyone.” “I’ve always been able to change the way my future looks with a mere suggestion.” Her asides are as charming as she is. Isa understands the difference between outfits and costumes, she doesn’t save phone numbers, and has learned to keep glowing remarks to herself (after all, you’re no longer an ingenue after 21). She understands the effervescence of always getting away with something, and how deliberately charm can be wielded to create various levels of intimacy.
Isa and Gala are a familiar contemporary duo: the introspective, discerning narrator and her quick-as-a-whip loudmouth counterpart always ready to drop a bon mot and split, letting her wit zip around the room as she exits. Though Gala can get away with a lot that Isa can’t, because Gala is white, Isa is quick to make sure no one writes Gala off as completely carefree; given Gala’s history (as a baby refugee) Gala is more familiar with suffering than other girls who look like her are assumed to be. The 21-year olds live together (sleeping in the same bed) and sell used clothes in a booth at a market, an endeavor to which Gala is usually late. They keep a weather eye on any potential future gigs that pay cash, like being members of an in-studio audience, or working a room at a meatpacking district bar to baste it with some “downtown flavor.” The one time they almost have a gig for a foot fetishist they decide the gamble ultimately isn’t worth the pedicure. They can’t get desk jobs with benefits because neither has working papers. This isn’t something Granados rebukes the reader with; in much the same way that Gala thinks rich people love Isa because she won’t admonish them, Granados doesn’t need to impress upon the reader the limitations that not having papers puts on the girls as they look for work, or the worry that health scares could cause because they won’t have insurance. Isa has no interest in making people feel morally scrubbed raw and clean by hearing her story. And while Isa and Gala are hustling to pay the bills, they’re never doing it for the sake of the grind. They don’t feel the need to have something to say when someone inevitably asks, “so what do you do?” There are no color-coded planners or five-year plans. There’s happy hour and vintage coats and the luxury of sliding into a cab at the end of the night when you can afford it.
Obviously, class issues are woven into the book, as Isa and Gala live hand-to-mouth and are scammed out of too much money for their Brooklyn sublet, and the people they spend time with are making (or have) much more money. But because of who Isa and Gala are, and what they like, the book gets at an anxiety that not a lot of the reviews cover: the anxiety rich people have over the idea of poor people having luxurious things. Gala and Isa may not be able to have a regular 9-5, or afford health care, but they go to beautiful restaurants, when someone else picks up the bill; they wear beautiful things, when they can find them. It’s not for nothing that the book is called Happy Hour, or two of the three quotes on the back cover compare it to a cocktail; Gala and Isa both know how to savor something delicious, and aren’t apologetic about it, which gets under the skin of some of their acquaintances. Their carefree scheming gives them confidence and charisma, which is sometimes mistaken for power or control, but it isn’t. When Isa is invited out to the Hamptons, her insecure host treats her like hired entertainment that has grated on his nerves and assigns her errands; when he reads her journal and doesn’t like what he finds, he can’t understand why he shouldn’t have read it in the first place. Here, she is completely dependent on other people for food and transportation; it’s a reminder for her how exhausting it is to be on display, all the time, or feel you exist for other people’s curiosity. She is constantly finding herself in places where her identity is used as currency, or street cred, or bait.
Isa isn’t a whiner, a navel-gazer, or a person who feels the need to pathologize every single thing she has ever experienced, so the fact that she is walking around living her life while also grieving the death of her mother is a quiet, understated part of the book, but very poignant nonetheless. Her statement that grief is a currency she will not use marks a distinct turn away from the current milieu in which any bad or uncomfortable experience, especially when related on the internet, can apparently be described as trauma. She feels no need to mold her grief into a quippy side comment to make it palatable for other people, which causes some tension with Gala, who is more flippant. There is one barely restrained conversation Isa and Gala have that gets at the heart of how, when it comes to showing or concealing grief even with the people you’re closest to, you can be damned either way. Their relationship is well-rendered, and one of the strongest elements of the book. Despite a lot of fictitious evidence to the contrary — including writing by plenty of icons and iconoclasts revered in part for just living in New York — being young and poor doesn’t make you more artistically gifted or moral than anyone else; suffering doesn’t actually have to be a prerequisite for having the right to be creating something, nor does anyone actually have a god-given directive to whittle their suffering into something to be offered up to a market. There still exists a nebulous but immutable idea of “real” New Yorkers that goes beyond a certain neuroticism and longevity and knowledge of how many places have closed, and refers (not in so many words) to people who have done their due diligence of suffering and deserve the moniker. But when people put too much faith into this idea, they’re doing the same thing the rich people that Gala lampoons are doing: hoping to borrow some authenticity to add meaning to their own lives. The ending of Happy Hour feels like a sly wink not unlike the ending of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which, it has been argued, leaves it up to the viewer whether Jo’s happy coupled ending is genuine, or a hastily scribbled edit meant to appease an editor and satiate a market. If Isa decides to publish some version of her diaries, which we’ve been reading all along, is it because she truly believes in the artistic voice within them, or is it just a way to capitalize on something new that people may want from her, that might make her life marginally easier? Is it a plan, a step up, or another roguish scheme? And if you have strong feelings one way or another — why do you care so much?