It’s a lesson I’m not sure if I’ve learned yet, which might explain why I bought the book. It’s not that I have problems talking to women, I’m married so obviously I have some skill (though my wife might say otherwise to spite me) it’s just that I never really learned how you actually talk to girls when you’re at a party. Because of this I figured I would learn from Neil Gaiman how exactly you do this, and instead I got a rather odd, wonderful, beautiful book about a boy who meets goddesses, suns, and universes.
Amazon is the ultimate temptation for me, and minutes, sometimes hours, that should be spent reading or writing are instead spent following the trails of recommendations of books I was just looking at. The Sandman: The Doll’s House leads to the graphic novelization of The Graveyard Book which leads to American Gods which leads to Anansi Boys which leads to Coraline which leads to Endless Nights which leads eventually to an odd book with three beautiful women on the cover (more about them later) beneath the title How to Talk to Girls at Parties. As I said, wrote, before, I wasn’t a social creature growing up, and the only reason I acquired any confidence was because I had to get out of my shell for a job, also I got a girlfriend that tends to help. Still despite when I was looking at the cover I had an odd moment of reincarnation when I began to recognize I had become a teenage boy again. Not only that, one of my favorite authors had written a guide for me so that, should it occur, if I was invited to a party I could now just follow a guide.
I bought the book and read it mystified by the experience because it was nothing of what I thought it was.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a story about a young teenage boy named Enn who is dragged to a party by his friend Vic. Enn is the kind of boy that is obviously just the younger avatar version of the writer, or else the every-man nerd that eventually grows up and becomes an accomplished author who writes about every-man nerds growing up to become accomplished authors. I recognize that that sounds like I’m being bitter and that the work is good but you misunderstand me, I write out of hope. If Neil Gaiman was the nerdy loser who got lucky there’s still a chance for me. Enn and Vic arrive at a house that isn’t the party they’re going to, but when the door opens a beautiful girl answers the door, and when she invites them inside the party is nothing but beautiful women. Vic is the go-to suave, confident jock who immediately hits it off with one of the girls and Enn is left to himself wandering through the house where he meets and “talks” to three women who, while they talk, speak as if they aren’t really women, or human for that matter. The exact word one of the girls uses is “tourist.” As the book goes on it’s clear that these women are either aliens, goddesses, or even universes made manifest into human form. Enn eventually talks to one and begins to kiss her, realizing that the girl is using him as a conduit so that her “story” will live on when Vic grabs him and tells him they have to leave. The girl he was going to sleep with glares after them, her head become an exploding sun, and as soon as they’re out of the house it’s clear that Vic became terrified once it was clear that the girl was using him and not the other way around. As for Enn, he forgets the “poem” almost as soon as they leave the house, and as they walk away it disappears slowly becoming as fleeting as music.
This plot description is important because anyone who buys the book thinking what I thought originally should know what they’re really buying, and while this isn’t just a lecture series by Gaiman (“Neil Gaiman’s Guide to Scoring Babes” is currently in development as a Great Courses series by the way) by the end the book had taught me exactly how to talk to girls.
You don’t talk, you just listen.
In hindsight I wish someone had just told me that when I was thirteen that this is the way you talk to girls, it would have made high school a far easier experience than it was, but we all must fight through the slough of despond that is puberty and emerge victorious. Part of that struggle is finding your own path through it.**
Most, if not all, of Gaiman’s books on some level tackle the nature of stories and narratives, and you could make the argument that his entire creative ethos is simply an effort to tell one really long story about stories period. Whether it’s the stories of myth in American Gods, the stories of old houses and children who find themselves caught in them in Coraline, or whether it’s the very story of the narrative existence in his Sandman series, Gaiman’s creative writing, and even his non-fiction, all seem dedicated to telling, unravelling, and then recreating the structure of narratives period while telling amazing stories.
At this point my reader will interrupt and ask what’s so damn special about How to Talk to Girls at Parties then? If Gaiman isn’t bringing anything new to the table, why bother with the book at all? And what if I already know how to talk to girls at parties, what then smarty-pants?
To begin with let’s avoid the name calling. Greg.
Second there are at least two significant reasons for reading this slim graphic novel and the first is Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. My regular reader may recognize those names, and if you have never read any of my work you still might have heard about them. Moon and Ba are the creative team behind the book Daytripper, a graphic novel which has won several Eisner awards (basically the Oscars of graphic novels) and a wonderful story about a man who wants to be a writer. Apart from the spectacular writing of Daytripper the lingering impression of the book is art which, and I know I’ve used this word several times already but it’s the best word that works, is simply beautiful. Daytripper is illustrated and colored with the stuff of dreams, and while reading that book I was struck by the thought that such work couldn’t possibly be replicated, I found myself fortunately corrected in How To Talk to Girls at Parties.
Gaiman’s words make the Moon and Ba’s colors, lines, and girls become some of the most radiant images collected into one small book. As Enn travels from room to room listening to the three women tell their story I felt as if I had left the world I knew, and as the women told their story I carried their words, and beings, long after I had closed the book. Ba and Moon are what helps make the book what it is, because their colors make each woman unique, and quite possibly the most beautiful women in comics I have ever seen.
As for my second response to my contester I would remind my reader that even if Gaiman is continuing his process of anthropomorphizing stories, gods, feelings, emotions, or non-living beings like stars or the internet, this is no reason not to read his work. In fact, given the fact that it’s Neil Gaiman this should only provide more impetus to actually read it. Gaiman is a writer who does not half-ass his reader, and even in his most esoteric (Sandman Overture was about something, I’m still working on not drooling while staring at the art) he manages to write characters and settings, and events into being that feel true. Normal human beings with their own lives, who are trying to figure out the oddity of mundane reality become swept up by supernatural events or creatures. Ultimately his characters are forever impacted by these experiences, and while most forget the sights and wonders the way a person might immediately lose a dream when they awake, they still feel the experience long after. His prose is where this wonder takes place, and as he wraps his reader in their dream he leaves the lasting impression.
Looking at the exchange between Enn and the last girl, a Grecian red-head named Triolet, the reader hears her story and is carried away to a different realm:
“We knew that it would be soon over. We knew…so we put it all into a poem…to tell the universe who we were and why we were here and what we said and did and thought and dreamed and yearned for. We wrapped our dreams in words and patterned the words so that they would live forever, unforgettable. Then we sent the poem as a pattern of flux, to wait in the heart of a star, beaming out its message in pulses and bursts and fuzzes across the electromagnetic spectrum, until the time when, on worlds a thousand sun systems distant, the pattern could be decoded and read, and it would become a poem once again.” (43-45)
If I can break the fourth wall for a moment, while transcribing this passage I have a video playing titled “underwater whale songs.” Humpbacks and the sound of the ever roaring waves echoing through the infinite abyss of the ocean just seemed to make the words feel real.
Aside aside, moving on.
This small exchange, rendered magnificently by Moon and Ba, is the typical anthropomorphizing that Gaiman fans are used to, but looking deeper into the passage I realized at this moment that Gaiman had achieved a miracle for blending science fiction with myth. Myth as a term has fallen on hard times, and shows like Mythbusters have only perpetuated this tragedy (and it is a tragedy because the show is great and a wonderful way for people to become interested in science), but at its core myth is about explaining reality through narrative rather than empirical means. Triolet may be a goddess, or a star, or an alien, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because at this moment what matters is that she’s telling the story of her people, what they used to be and were and what they believed. The act of speaking to Enn, and having him listen, is in essence recording her culture. And while the reader may immediately question why that is so important I would remind them of the necessity of recording history, myth, culture, philosophy, history, science, and stories. It’s a romantic thought, but crucial to remember, that nothing in this world ever really matters until someone has written it down.
Record seals memory and so Gaiman achieves something really interesting by not only telling a story about an alien race keeping themselves alive by telling their stories to young men looking to get laid, there’s also a fascinating possibility for the future.
In the introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes about science fiction as a genre and what is the ultimate creative goal. She also tries to clarify the idea that science fiction is a genre trying to “see into the future.” She writes:
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to shwo that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.
My reader may be getting impatient at this point, but hopefully this quote will explain one of my lasting impressions of reading How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Science fiction isn’t about predicting future technology, or predicting how the world will eventually die. As Le Guin says, the entire genre is built upon the concept of the “thought-experiment.” Imagine a set of conditions and let it just go. Explore an idea through imagination. And so listening to Triolet’s story I see a beautiful science fiction possibility. Already humanity is moving more and more towards a paperless system of record keeping, in which every action, thought, belief, and art product is contained in formless data streamed through wires and eventually through waves. Ba and Moon’s art shows the species collecting their culture into a “poem” before containing it in a sun and sending the signal out to be discovered by some new race that might study their species and carry their memory on.
How to talk to Girl’s at Parties isn’t just about learning how to speak to that girl across the room who keeps smiling at you, it offers a deeper understand of what such an interaction actually is. Walking across the room, feeling your tongue swell up and your palm getting sweaty as you think of something to say to the girl you’ve seen everyday in Algebra I for the last year is like encountering a new world. You’ll never be the same after you ask her a question, and you’ll never be the person you were when you see her smile and listen to her talk about finding her blouse at Goodwill. The small act of listening to a girl tell you about her clothes or day may not be the grand thought experiments of writers like Le Guin, Clarke, Dick, Adams, Asimov, or even Gaiman but in its own way it does forever leave what you knew behind.
So long story short, take the chance, talk to the girl, and just listen carefully. You’ll find yourself in a different world.
The quote from Le Guin’s introduction can be found ACE Science Fiction paperback copy, as well as by following the link below:
Upon finishing the essay I remembered that my father had actually taught me this lesson, but like most young men receiving advice from their dad’s I didn’t listen to it. So thanks dads, and sorry I didn’t pay attention.