How to Talk to Girls at Parties by Neil Gaiman was originally included in the Fragile Things anthology, but was released as a standalone novel with an excerpt from The Ocean at the End of the Lane last year as a teaser. It is one of my favorite short stories by him, and I’m happy to share it with you.
There isn’t much of a plot to the story. Two young 15-year-old boy’s sneak out at night to go to a party to get drunk and maybe get some snogging in. They attend the wrong party, encounter something that makes them stone cold sober, then they escape with their lives. The end.
At first this seems to be a story of boyhood nostalgia, told thirty years after the events of the story have passed. There are loving details given to the sights and sounds of the late 70s, especially of the music and culture. It is a party as spiritually empty and noisy as any party tends to be. Then the story takes a ominous turn. The women aren’t local girls, but children of the stars looking to share their story with other beings, but in a way that will consume the listener and leave nothing of themselves behind—forever changed.
What makes this short story so wonderful is how evocative Gaiman’s writing is. His descriptions are artfully placed, never slowing down the story, but enhancing the moments of pause. He captured the thought process of the 15-year-old Vic and Enn very well. Throwing them into a party where the women spoke of things that are far outside their understanding made for an interesting contrast.
It also highlighted the banality of their existence. Here they could be one with the universe and all they wanted to do was drink and make out. Obviously, being one with the universe is overrated if it involves listening to poetry that colonizes the culture and minds of those who listen. “But where does contagion end and art begin?” Perhaps art shouldn’t begin when cultures and peoples are destroyed by the act of listening.
Gaiman explores his fascination with godlike figures in much of his work—like a mirror reflecting ancient folklore through modern images. In How to Talk to Girls at Parties, this fascination continues. His description of stars as perfect females was starkly contrasted by their description of themselves as being “in a decaying lump of meat hanging on a frame of calcium”. They were as beautiful as they were alien and creepy.
Vic may have seemed like a cavalier lothario in the beginning of the story, but his character lives more and sees farther than the timid Enn who is often content to merely watch life and complain about how it passes him by. Enn doesn’t truly understand what happened at the party, but Vic understood enough to change him forever.
Release Date: September 26, 2006 (USA)
ISBNs: 0060515228 (9780060515225)
Publisher: William Morrow
Collection Title: Fragile Things
Alcohol/Drugs: 4 (underage drinking at a party)
Sexuality: 3 (frequent discussion of breasts and sex, making out)
Violence: 0 (mild peril)