FUN AT PARTIES
ISSUE TWO: July, 2019
FUN AT PARTIES
by EM MELLER
Parties are meant to be fun – that’s the whole point. But what if they’re not?
I went back home, to Sydney, for the summer and broke up with someone. So I started going to a lot of parties. The main function of my attendance was to convince friends and my family that I was actually fine, and not performatively so. They were suddenly and deeply concerned about the amount of fun I was, or was not, having. They said things like, ‘You just need to try and have some fun.’ So I tried, but my heart hurt. The idea of spontaneous, carefree fun seemed absurd.
I kept going to the parties, anyway. Sometimes, surrounded by people and music and dancing, I felt nothing. My new heightened awareness of fun felt, if not good, at least new and interesting. I started taking notes.
A friend called to tell me about a party I’d missed while I was living in the UK. ‘It was so fun’, she said, ‘but this one thing that happened...’ At this party there was a bathtub filled with ice and drinks. While my friend was on her way to the party, the host called her and asked if she could bring some extra ice. My friend took a detour to the shop and picked up as many bags as she could carry. On her walk to the party they started to get heavy and wet. It was one of those hot summer nights, the kind where your makeup slides off before you get where you’re going. The arms and shoulders were aching and her clothes were drenched. When she finally reached the party she went straight to the bathroom, where she found the bathtub brimming over with ice. ‘Why did you tell me to get more ice?’ she asked. The host looked confused and said, ‘Well, it might melt,’ then walked off.
Fun, like happiness, is slippery. When you try to hold it, to turn it over under a light, it melts. We are expected to have fun, at a minimum, every weekend. On Monday, you are expected to provide evidence of that fun. If you don’t, people will be concerned. If in doubt, say something simple like, ‘I went to a party, it was a lot of fun.’ They will leave you alone.
At one recent party, the only person I knew was my friend H. She said it would be good for me to meet some new people. But one hour in, the only person I’d talked to was H. We stood in a corner and watched the others talk, because they all knew each other. Eventually H dragged me into a circle, where I stood silently for so long I became self-conscious about my silence. Had they noticed I wasn’t speaking? I laughed at something I hadn’t heard, then excused myself for the bathroom. I wrote a note in my phone, ‘Hiding. In bathroom. Pathetic.’
When I came back out, H was talking to a guy, and I didn’t want to interrupt. I looked around at the closed circles of people and panicked. ‘Hey’, said a girl standing next to me. We started talking. The panic eased. On the other side of the garden, H laughed in an exaggerated way I recognised as flirtatious. I told the girl about a guy I’d known while in high school, the kind of Sydney private-school boy whose life, plotted on a graph, would take the form of a smooth upward trajectory. He studied hard and got a good corporate job straight out of uni. Then, about five years in, he had a bit of a breakthrough. He quit his job and started surfing every day, and took scuba trips to tropical beaches. He also got a tattoo: ‘This is water’. It’s a nice sentiment, from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, all about compassion and mindfulness and paying attention to what is all around you. But the guy got this line from a YouTube video of the speech. He didn’t know David Foster Wallace was a writer and he hadn’t read any of his books. He didn’t know that Wallace killed himself. The girl laughed at this story. The next week, she repeated it on her podcast.
Modern fun is a product of late capitalism. Fun is now something people will try to sell you, in the form of other products. Have this beer, and a steamy woman will kiss you on the upper neck! Drive this Volkswagen into a lake – of light-hearted pleasure! Buy this music festival ticket, and splash around in the azure-water fantasies of a middle-aged marketing executive who still wears a baseball cap to the office!
The commoditisation of fun has been occurring since at least the end of WWII. Adorno and Horkheimer said that ‘fun is a medicinal bath.’ They were critiquing the way commerce shapes art, and dumbs it down, but the sentiment applies to the concept of fun more generally. If you try and buy fun, it makes the resulting happiness fraudulent. Fun (like art) is best produced in contexts where it serves no actual commercial function. In other words, the real hoax is fun itself.
And we all know this kind of commoditised fun is a trick. Anyone who has tried to purchase something for the purpose of having fun has probably found that it ends up, mostly, deeply depressing. David Foster Wallace went on a luxury cruise and spent days staring into an azure ocean. There were activities planned every day, designed to elicit maximal cruise enjoyment. Wallace called this regimented mode of leisure ‘managed fun’, and said it is a one-way ticket to despair. He said, ‘It produces a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as fear of death.’ In the same essay, Wallace describes a young man who jumped off this kind of cruise ship. He says that staring out at the ocean from the deck of a similar place, committed to regimented ‘fun’ activities, he could understand the desire to die.
I stood outside the door to J’s party for ten minutes. I hadn’t seen anyone inside for a long time. I knew exactly who would be there: the same people who were always there. J had said to come, he said it would be fun, and I thought so too, until I was standing outside the door. Suddenly it seemed like a bad idea. And I was different now. How much of myself would I have to explain? The unexpected return to Sydney? The new fringe?
I knew every person that would be on the other side of that door. I could make a strong guess about the configuration of couches, based on known romantic and social relations. I could produce an accurate transcript of the conversations I was about to have. ‘How long are you back for?’ ‘Yeah, I’m still at the same firm – it’s fine, the people are all really nice.’ ‘We’re thinking of doing South America next year.’
I opened the door and saw a roomful of familiar faces. I kissed four cheeks and half-hugged eight pairs of shoulders. I was right about the configuration. It was a new apartment, designed for young professionals, with compact appliances that could be shut away in drawers. It looked exactly like J’s old apartment, two suburbs over, and also every other apartment on every level of every high rise on the street. The sounds of other parties drifted in through the window. I heard someone say, ‘We’re thinking of doing Japan next year. Or South America.’
Sometimes being at parties feels like staring into an ocean that is flat and faraway, waiting for waves. I always end up in a dead corner of the room, planning a polite way to escape. And I know it’s not just me, because I watch other people do the same. I imagine standing on a table, drink in hand, yelling ‘What are we doing?’ And everyone cheering. And we all get up and leave, light-headed, and give up fun at parties for good.
A man in a suit walked past me carrying a plate of oysters. It was 30 degrees outside, and we were in Stanmore for an Osher Gunsberg-themed party. We had chosen him as the theme because he represented a special kind of Australian celebrity, who had managed to reach a mild level of fame, where most people would recognise his face if not his work. More importantly, he had used his modest platform after becoming host of The Bachelor to talk openly about his struggles with drug addiction and bipolar disorder. It gave his Bachelor-hosting style an emotional depth unequalled by the rest of the world. It made us love him.
The house was a three-bedroom semi with a large back garden strung with fairy lights. A plane flew overhead every half hour. We’d thrown rose petals all over the hallway and stuck photos of Osher Gunsberg on every wall.
Halfway through the night, H and I went into her bedroom. We lay on the bed because we were drunk, and according to my notes, ‘HigH’. The bed was very comfortable. She wanted to know how I was doing. I said, ‘I am still so angry with him.’ She said that was okay. I said, ‘But I am trying not to fetishise my sadness.’ She said it was only a problem if I over-identified with the sadness, used it as a personality trait. If I got scared of letting it go. The only other thing I remember is that when we were still dancing at 2 a.m., I put a rose between my teeth. The stem was extremely bitter. I looked at my phone and saw that Osher had tweeted about the party and thanked H for hosting it. I blew a kiss to a picture of Osher on the floor.
The point is: Fun is an azure ocean.
The point is: We have wasted so much time.
The point is: This is not, and has never been, water.
The point is: There’s a party Saturday, and we’re going.
The point is: Get out of the bath, the ice is melting.
I asked a friend what he thought the point of parties was. He said in high school, you went so you had something to talk about on Monday. Basically, you could have skipped the whole thing if you had a few stories to share – that was the major social function of parties. To say, ‘I kissed her’ or, ‘I got sooo wasted’. What actually went down didn’t matter. But the difference now, he said, is that you go to a party for the party itself. You go there to see your friends, and have a nice time. It’s worth it.
And maybe this is the point I have been avoiding. The possibility that criticising our need to have fun at parties, calling it a waste of time, is not a particularly interesting intellectual position. It’s clear that fun is dumb, but sometimes dumb things have value. The problem is in using the idea of fun to make money. But if you divorce it from that, from any sense of purpose, and let it be an unnecessary thing, then maybe it gains a different value, serves a more human function. I believe, despite everything, that fun (that love?) is worth it.
Towards the end of J’s party I bumped into R. She asked me how I was, and I said, ‘I broke up with my boyfriend.’ Instead of looking at me sadly, R said, ‘No fucking way – I broke up with mine like three weeks ago!’
We spoke for a while about breaking up with people. About how the pain is stupid, and even stupider for being something we volunteered for by falling in love at all. She told me she had started sleeping with a man who wore a volunteer firefighter’s uniform, to be sexy. ‘Volunteer?’ I asked. ‘Like, he’s not even a real one?’ She said I had missed the point.
We drank tequila and watched all the couples leaving for an early night. Much drunker, R said, ‘Everything is terrible.’ And I said, ‘I may never be loved like that again.’ We laughed.
The next morning, I found a note in my phone. ‘Fetishised sadness (bad). But … had fun.’
EM MELLER is a writer who has had work in places like The Lifted Brow, Scum and Voiceworks. She is currently completing a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford