The last weekend before Christmas: in other years, we would be attending Holiday parties, sometimes weighing which invitations to accept and for which ones to send our regrets. In 2020, after nine months of COVID hysteria and pandemic prudence, the obligatory workplace gala would be welcomed for once.
Instead, I’ll share with you a smorgasbord of fictional fests, and invite you to these parties vicariously.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
Zachary finds an uncatalogued book in the college library, and strangely enough, it appears to be about him. He starts researching its author and investigating its provenance into the college library collection. He crashes a Manhattan Literary Masquerade ball to seek answers:
“. . . this particular party is unlike anything he’s ever experienced. . . . There are not a great number of obvious literary costumes, but there are scarlet letters and dictionary-page fairy wings and an Edgar Allan Poe with a fake raven on his shoulder. A picture-perfect Daisy Buchanan sips a martini at the bar. A woman in a little black dress has Emily Dickenson poems printed on her stockings. A man in a suit has a towel draped over his shoulder. A number of people could easily fit into works by Austen or Dickens. . . .
“His favorite costume is worn by a woman in a long white gown and a simple gold crown, a reference he can’t quite place until she turns around and the gown’s draped back includes a pointed pair of ears hanging from a hood and a tail trailing along with the train. . . . The king of the wild things who might possibly be wearing a wig smiles at him . . .”
If you were going to a formal literary masquerade, who would you become?
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
I’m assuming you know the premise: the beautiful, wild, intriguing woman-child Holly Golightly is lost, mostly to herself.
“If anybody knocks,” Holly tells the narrator, a man she’s dubbed Fred, “let them in. . .”
“Within the next quarter-hour a stag party had taken over the apartment, several of them in uniform. I counted two Naval officers and an Air Force colonel: but they were outnumbered by graying arrivals beyond draft status. Except for the lack of youth, the guests had no common theme, they seemed strangers among strangers; indeed, each face on entering, had struggled to conceal dismay at seeing others there. It was as if the hostess had distributed her invitations while zig-zagging through various bars; which was probably the case. After the initial frowns, however, they mixed without grumbling . . . .”
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of the few instances in which—at least this scene— the film outshines the book.
To be fair, they are telling two very different tales. It’s as if the movie were fan fiction, taking Capote’s characters and rearranging them. Be that as it may, I have yet to attend a party so crowded it required a climb out the fire escape to avoid the police . . . Those were the days! It’s an introvert’s nightmare, and one I long for in the midst of this pandemic.
Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
You’ve heard of Skull and Bones, yes? This Yale secret society counts Presidents George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and presidential-hopeful John Kerry, among other famous and infamous civic leaders, among its members. In Bardugo’s Ninth House, Yale’s secret societies work magic. The Bonesmen disembowel a live psychiatric patient to conjure up stock tips. Alex Stern is the newest ward of Lethe, Yale’s fictional Ninth House, charged with monitoring the occult activities of Yale’s secret societies to keep students, civilians, townspeople—and Yale Governance—safe.
She attends a Halloween party hosted by the Manuscript Society, at a house with a multi-level basement, each floor magically decorated, like Las Vegas, or as Alex suggests, “a music video, ” to resemble a completely different setting.
Alex and her mentor Daniel enter an underground meadow, complete with lush grass, filtered sunlight, hummingbirds, and picnickers. The descend through a sky-ceilinged cathedral of flowers into a mountaintop arbor with pillars lit by golden sunlight—the embodiment of a Maxfield Parrish painting. They arrive in a historical-fantasy movie set: tall mirrors, a banquet table lit by fireflies; a cauldron stirring itself.
They have come to the seat of Manuscript power, tonight masquerading as faerieland. Alex, in costume as Queen Mab for a Shakespeare party later that night, becomes Queen Mab:
“Night ebbed and flowed around her in a cape of glittering stars; above the oil-black sheaf of her hair, a constellation glowed—a wheel, a crown. Her eyes were black, her mouth the dark red of overripe cherries. He could feel power churning around her, through her. . . .
In the mirror, [he] Daniel saw himself, a night with bowed head, offering his service, a sword in his hand . . . . Stars poured through him, a cold and billowing wave of night. He saw everything . . .”
Best to read about this party, and not attend it. All of it: glamour. Not only the glamour of appearance, but the glamour of desire. Desire nearly overtakes him.
Would you? Would you party where desire becomes real?
Go Dog Go by P.D. Eastman.
The best party of all is a dog party! Swinging dogs and trampolining dogs! Reading dogs, and dogs eating cake! Dogs wear party hats and inflate blowout party horns. As a child, I poured over this two-page spread as if I were looking for Waldo. I didn’t want to miss any detail. One paw sticks through the leaves holding ice cream. Another paw reaches into the foliage to grab after a pup. Look at all the dogs!
I’ll tell you a secret: they’re having more fun than Holly Golightly’s guests.