Reading List: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”

As most reviews of this story by Neil Gaiman point out, there’s not a lot to it. Two boys are going to a party in a very normal pebble-dashed terraced house somewhere in East Croydon. They’re going for the girls. One of them, Vic, is confident, something of a smooth operator; the other, Enn, is the narrator, and is all at sea, not knowing how to relate to girls who, he thinks, “just sort of sprint off into the future ahead of you” when puberty rolls around. Vic gives Enn the piece of advice that, once you know this is an sf story, gives away the plot:

They’re just girls,” said Vic. “They don’t come from another planet.”

Guess what? These girls do, literally, come from another planet. The party itself is quite well done, dingy and claustrophobic as these things tend to be. Vic puts his moves on the best-looking girl at the party, with some success. Meanwhile, Enn ends up talking to two girls. The first, a girl with long white hair and a split little finger, says things like:

“I grow weary of the journeying, and I wish sometimes that it would end. On a street in Rio at Carnival, I saw them on a bridge, golden and tall and insect-eyed and winged, and elated I almost ran to greet them, before I saw that they were only people in costumes. I said to Hola Colt, ‘Why do they try so hard to look like us?’ and Hola Colt replied, ‘Because they hate themselves, all shades of pink and brown, and so small.’ It is what I experience, even me, and I am not grown. It is like a world of children, or of elves.”

To which Enn’s response is: do you want to dance? The second girl, this time with short dark hair and a gap between her two front teeth, says even more obviously revealing things like:

“But there was no reasoning with it, and I came to world. Parent-teacher engulfed me, and I was here, embodied in a decaying lump of meat hanging on a frame of calcium. As I incarnated I felt things deep inside me, fluttering and pumping and squishing. It was my first experience with pushing air through the mouth, vibrating the vocal cords on the way, and I used it to tell parent-teacher that I wished that I would die, which it acknowledged was the inevitable exit strategy from world.”

To which Enn’s response is to try the casual stretch-out-arm-and-put-it-around-her trick. Strangely, this does not deter the girl: instead she starts talking to him about a poem that encodes the information of her people, which the aliens may or may not be here to disseminate, and which may or may not transform humanity. Just as Enn is falling under the girl’s spell, Vic, who has been upstairs with Stella, appears and insists they both leave the party, obviously traumatized by whatever he’s seen. The end.

So: the girls at the party actually are aliens, except that because Enn is expecting girls to be alien, he doesn’t notice. It’s a good thing the story isn’t any longer than it is; in any case, it nearly outstays its welcome. It rather strains credibility that even expecting girls to be aliens, even when drunk, Enn doesn’t twig that there’s something odd about the people he’s talking to, given some of the things they say. What gives the story the little edge it has, I’d say, is that there’s a grain of truth in the girls-as-aliens thing, for boys of the narrator’s age: the gap between being on one side of puberty and being on the other side of it is real, and can be daunting. But then, although girls often do mature sooner than boys, they don’t do so universally, so it’s as much a puberty thing as it is a sex thing. That is: as a young teenage boy, in many ways, older boys come from a different world just as much as do girls of your own age.

A few nuggets of discussion about the story from elsewhere. Megan Messinger at Tor.com, as an example of an unbeloved plot:

My least favorite of these is “a magic thing happened, and then it went away.” A prime example is Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” Yes, I know it was nominated for a Hugo, and yes, it was well-written, sentence by sentence and even scene by scene; I pick on it partially because the full text is available online. (With all sincerity, that’s pretty cool.) But the plot is, boys go to party, talk to girl-shaped clone-type alien beings, everyone tries to put the moves on each other, boys leave party. The story ends

The streetlights came on, one by one; Vic stumbled on ahead, while I trudged down the street behind him in the dusk, my feet treading out the measure of a poem that, try as I might, I could not properly remember and would never be able to repeat.

So there is a bit about growing up, and the magic thing going away is a handy metaphor for childhood or innocence, but the boys themselves don’t get it. They don’t change. There is a wisp of understanding that dissipates and leaves me unsatisfied at the end. Most of the appeal and cleverness lies in the story saying, “Look! Neil Gaiman has literalized a metaphor about teenage boys trying to relate to the fair sex!” and I don’t buy into it.

(This is fair enough although, as I say, the story’s brevity inclines me to let him get away with it.)

Betty at the Hathor Legacy:

Obviously, Vic makes a good point. Girls really are just people, and treating them as completely incomprehensible aliens is going to be a barrier to communication, or, in the case of this story, allow Enn to mistake completely incomprehensible aliens for girls. But, as someone who is actually a girl, pointing out that girls are people was not an insight that rocked my world.

There are interesting implications in the fact that the girl-shaped aliens want to impregnate Enn not with larvae, but with a memetic virus, a poem that will reshape humanity. Is this meant to contrast to a fear of the sexually liberated woman? This was not truly explored.

“Talking to Girls at Parties” is like watching a magician pull out of a hat, not a rabbit, but a hatpin, while a rabbit hops across the stage.

So the story failed to deliver that sharp twist which I particularly like in short stories, but it is quite decent at completely incomprehensible aliens. If you like your aliens with truly other biology and societies, this story is worth checking out.

(I’m not sure the aliens really are all that strange, but clearly that’s something on which mileage will vary.)

And Abigail Nussbaum:

I was expecting good things from Neil Gaiman’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties”–the story has gotten a lot of positive buzz and I usually do better with Gaiman’s short fiction than with his novels–which might be why the story left me slightly cold. Which is not to say that “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is bad. It isn’t. It’s a Neil Gaiman story–funny, well-written, mildly original. It is also, however, so thoroughly Gaiman-ish that, three paragraphs in, I was struck by the perverse conviction that it had been written by a clever impersonator, or possibly a Gaiman-bot. It was, I believe, the sentence “While it would be a lie to say that we had no experience with girls—Vic seemed to have had many girlfriends, while I had kissed three of my sister’s friends” that did the trick. That’s a Neil Gaiman sentence, I thought. I’ve read that sentence, or some tonal of stylistic variant on it, several times before. It’s an impression that persists throughout the story: here’s the shy, clever but socially inept narrator; here’s the narrator’s wacky friend; here’s the not-so-subtle setup (‘”They’re just girls,” said Vic. “They don’t come from another planet.”‘–you can write the rest of the story yourself from this point, can’t you?); here’s weirdness compounding itself around the oblivious narrator; here’s the lucky escape back into normalcy. None of it is done badly, and it’s not even the lack of originality that is my primary complaint against the story. I just prefer Gaiman when he’s writing outside of his comfort zone, actually working to elicit genuine emotion from his audience rather than trying to strike that half-wistful, half-knowing tone that permeates so much of his fiction and usually puts me in mind of a clever teenager whose writing isn’t nearly as profound as he thinks it is. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is smack dab in the middle of that comfort zone, and so, like a great deal of Gaiman’s fiction, my reaction to it is a combination of admiration and distaste.

(I’ve read less Gaiman than Abigail, but comfort zone: yes, it has that feel to me.)

12 Responses to “Reading List: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties””

  1. Reading List « Torque Control Says:

    [...] Reading List: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” [...]

  2. David Moles Says:

    Does someone have a list of those stories Gaiman’s written outside his comfort zone? Because every one I’ve written has been right in the middle of it, and it’s pretty much put me off him completely.

  3. Niall Says:

    I’m not the person to ask, but several sources tell me Anansi Boys is his most interesting novel.

  4. Abigail Says:

    That’s an interesting question, especially as three years after reading the story I’m less certain what I meant by comfort zone (though that’s certainly how I’d categorize Gaiman’s most recent novel, The Graveyard Book). Anansi Boys might be a good example, as with the exception of his collaboration with Terry Pratchett I can’t think of another instance in which Gaiman has tried to be laugh-out-loud comedic. So could stories like “A Study in Emerald” and “Snow, Glass, Apples,” which take place away from the mundane settings of “How to Talk to Girls,” and have a more pronounced story arc.

    Of course, it’s worth remembering that Gaiman’s comfort zone isn’t always a bad thing. He defined it in Sandman, which is still his finest and most worthwhile work.

  5. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    The problem with identifying a work that is clearly within Gaiman’s comfort zone is that ALL of his works are within his comfort zone.

  6. rreugen Says:

    Interesting.
    Now I’m asking this question myself, what is Neil Gaiman’s comfort zone?

    I am an actor by profession and here it’s fairly obvious, with both physical appearance and behavioristic patterns combining to pigeonhole actors into the ‘casting categories,’ ingenue, femme fatale, etc. When an actor leaves the comfort zone it is said to be ‘composing’ but, in fact, ‘composition’ is just the comfort zone of another type of actor (the Peter Sellers type).

    I never thought about comfort zones and writers before.

  7. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    Gaiman’s comfort zone :

    Breaking down distinction between pop-cultural creations and more traditional mythologies. Blurring and partial deconstruction of both.

    A whimsical and sometimes tongue-in-cheek tone juxtaposed with themes which, at first glance, may appear quite dark but which, upon further examination, reveal themselves to be largely bloodness affectation.

  8. Abigail Says:

    Yeah, that sounds about right. Though, again, this works very well in Sandman, even with the bloodless affectation.

  9. Pam Phillips Says:

    What I liked most in the story is the imagery of the alien journeys. It’s written very prettily, and if you allow your attention to stay on the surface, it’s pleasant enough. As for the adolescent cluelessness, I got the feeling that Enn thinks the “girls” are just too grown-up and sophisticated for him, but he feels obliged to attempt clumsy pick-up lines anyway.

    This is my favorite of the few stories of his I’ve read because its the only one where he allows the characters to remain unsettled at the end. However, like every other one I’ve read, they were safe as houses all along. And this is why I find the writing not just twee, but boring. Expecting to find a sense of peril in a Neil Gaiman story is like expecting to be tortured by a comfy chair.

  10. Matt Denault Says:

    Even beyond Gaiman’s general “comfort zone,” this story does seem to encapsulate a mesh of connected ideas that reappear often in his fiction: the different scripts men and women speak and act by in their relationships; the barriers to changing and turning away from those scripts; the ultimate desirability of doing so. The whole “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” angle, here somewhat literally, also appears in Stardust, in bits of American Gods, in Good Omens–and Sandman is basically a catalog of Morpheus’s failed relationships, with side bits about Rose Walker’s, Will Shakespeare’s, etc. Impregnation, in this story via poem but often more literally, figures into many of these examples–it seems to nearly always be an attempt to force what may be a false change, an attempt to communicate a desire for stability. And then there is this issue of change, and barriers to change–in this story it is biochemical, puberty; in Sandman (and in one of my other Gaiman favorites, Nicholas Was…) it’s the stasis of being an anthropomorphic projection; in Good Omens it comes from living one’s life according to prophesy. But in Gaiman stories, the successful relationships are the ones where people do manage to change–Stardust, most noticeably, although the end of Good Omens leaves open that possibility as well: the realization for the need to change has at least been made.

    There may be some irony here.

  11. SF Strangelove Says:

    Gaiman does tend toward comfort to his detriment. I identify that comfort as nostalgia. There is a sense of sentimental nostalgia (for childhood, adolescence, or a ruined relationship) that again and again puts me off of Gaiman’s stories.

  12. Reading List: “Rats” « Torque Control Says:

    [...] Reading List: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” [...]


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