Scammers like Anna Delvey and Billy McFarland get all the credit. Their schemes—pilfering millions from wealthy people for fake businesses and fraudulent music festivals—scream for attention. It’s harder to get credit for lower-stakes grifts: like convincing a man you’ve just met to pay for your cab fare back to Brooklyn, or getting an invite to a Hamptons house based on charm alone. You must possess both smarts and joie de vivre to pull off that kind of con—if you even want to call it that. In Happy Hour, the debut novel by the Toronto-based writer Marlowe Granados, two 21-year old-women named Isa and Gala are con artists of this more intimate sort.
Granados’s novel is a picaresque exploration of female friendship staged across a series of tableaus set in New York City during one particularly sweltering summer in the early 2010s. Isa and Gala traipse from club to club, interacting with models, actors, self-conscious artists, and wannabe members of the intelligentsia. The book takes the form of Isa’s diary, and her entries are perceptive. She notices everything: from the greenish yellow glow casting down from a light fixture at a party, to the various affectations of the men who flirt with her. “There’s something dangerous about it,” says a man she encounters at a bar who asks her about her writing, “I almost immediately worry how you’d portray me…. I feel like I should behave.”
There’s little in the way of conflict. The novel mostly revolves around how Isa and Gala interact with each other. The two women share a bed in an apartment, have almost no money, and are constantly trying to trick men into financing their antics. The lack of conflict puts the spotlight on the style and mood, and Isa’s diary entries bear the mark of a less anxious era. Granados cites Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as a stylistic influence, and indeed this frothy novel exhibits the same fun, decadent energy.
Earlier this year, Granados and I discussed what it means to write characters who want to be ingenues, having nobody take you seriously, and how entertaining it can be to watch rich people be incredibly insecure.
After I wrote the novel, I remember watching Mistress America, and one of the lines is so funny. Lola Kirke is like, “Well what are you selling?” And Greta Gerwig says, “Everything!” I felt like that was so similar to how these girls act. They act like they are selling something, but it’s not really clear what it is.
SK: Who did you write this for? What is your relationship with these characters?
MG: I started writing Happy Hour when I was 22, so very soon after the age of these characters. Isa and Gala are very much a testament to how I was. I was such a city dweller, and I started going out very young. The book kind of encapsulated this period of time from when I was 15 to roughly 22, and the dynamics that I had experienced over that time. Now I look at it and I am very happy to have felt and written it so close to those ages. I feel like people try to do it backwards and write about youth when they’re older, and it feels overwrought. That kind of writing can feel a little imprecise in how you process experiences at that age. I feel like an older sister to these characters, and now I’m giving the novel to some of these young influencers who I’m seeing all the time.
SK: I saw that you posted on Twitter about sending your book to girls on TikTok.
MG: Well, the thing is that people were asking me, “Oh are you worried about it not being accepted within this very literary institution?” I think that there was a high probability that it wasn’t going to take off in those circles because of the subject matter. People don’t take young women seriously, which is the whole point of the book.
When I’m writing, I think a lot about how we have this kind of nastiness toward young women who we think are vain. It’s just so funny to me that we have been like this forever. When people are making fun of girls that they think are super frivolous or vapid, I’m like, “these are the girls that I’m supposed to keep protected, in a way.” And that’s kind of what I wanted in the novel. I wanted it to be like if you had met girls like Isa and Gala, especially at our age now, you would 100 percent be annoyed by them.
SK: I think this is just a lot of what it is to be a young woman in general, to have your interests be treated as frivolous and stupid. I hate to use the word “empowering” because it can feel a bit meaningless, but let me ask, what feels empowering to you about writing something that is deliberately interested in being frothy?
MG: I’ve always been a feminine person, so it was important to have that in the language of the novel and in the characters, to reflect that. I wanted to have that be, in a way, very joyful and also with a particular focus on how hard it is to be liked. And to be constantly like, “OK, this guy is trying to ruin my life, but it’s fine. Like, I’m going out with him anyway.”
I think we often take for granted that kind of resilience, and that kind of “shake it off, it doesn’t matter” thing. We have these very intimate relationships with our friends, and so much of friendship is about storytelling: how we tell each other about the way we are, the things we do, and how we get over things. For me to process something, I have to tell 20 people. I can’t internalize it. That’s a key thing for these girls. They’ve been through hardships already. The book is so much about them trying to pursue lightness and pleasure and being—using their feminine wiles to their advantage at a young age.
I remember talking to a friend once, and she was similar to me. We had started going out very young. She said, “You know, when we were very young we had no agency.” That had truly never occurred to me that this was a thing. I totally get, yes, in a structural way I had no power, but it had never occurred to me to feel like that. It was never something that I had internalized as being a huge problem for me in the way that I lived my life and went around and ultimately was a public person.
SK: A lot of contemporary fiction right now feels really resistant to joy, to me. Reading this book was really wonderful because it’s immersed in having fun and making the best of all different kinds of situations.
MG: When we talk about the idea that all these novels are resistant to joy, that’s also because no one wants to publish these books. It’s actually super difficult to publish a novel like this. People are like, “Oh well, they don’t go through anything. And for me, when I first started writing this book at 22, I was like, “Well I don’t want these girls to be punished.” Like, why? For what reason? For the plot? To me it wasn’t worth it.
SK: What’s interesting to you on a conceptual level in writing about women who are deliberately trying to embody the role of an ingenue?
MG: I always like to talk about it as charm currency. I think, for the novel, a lot of what I wanted to practice is how someone can charm you through the way that they speak and the way that they create this intimacy. The idea of charm and being able to use that to rise in rank really interests me. Being aware of one’s charms and how it can fail you is part of this book, too: For example, after Isa goes to the Hamptons, she goes to a party with all these models, and it’s a different dynamic where no one wants to know these little waifs. They only want to talk to these young, naive, basically teenage models. She also has a moment of feeling alone, later, when she sees her clothes as yellowing and old, as if it’s a reflection on her. Being young and pretty can feel so entwined, and having that be something that you are used to being valued for, but when it’s challenged, it can be destabilizing. But in the novel, because she is creating a text, she is already creating this contingency fund for herself.
SK: There’s a really interesting power exchange that happens when you are an avatar for other people’s wants when you are a woman at that age. The book is in the form of a diary—do you think that Isa is writing it because she wants somebody to read it?
MG: I think that it is meant for an audience. When I first started this, before I had anything written in the form that it is currently, I wrote this monologue that Isa says to people when she first meets them. She tells everyone how she grew up and her story and all these things. I wanted performance to be a key part of her personality. She is performing this concept of herself. So I do think that the diary is meant to be read, but also in a way it’s how she accepts herself. I think that we’re all like that in our diaries. I had a few diaries as a teenager, and it’s always like you’re—you’re not being 100 percent honest with yourself when you write a diary. You are writing it to write up who you are and who you want to be. Because it’s a document, right? Who’s to argue, if this is the text that lasts from that time?
SK: How can levity in fiction avoid feeling vapid?
MG: One of the central through lines of the book is how lightness and humor in life isn’t simple and it’s not frivolous. Isa and Gala have no money, but are having the most fun during a very stressful time when they’re not eating enough vegetables. In my own life, when a bad thing happens, the first thing that any of my friends do is call me and rant about it for an hour and then we laugh. Why wouldn’t that sense of levity be an important part of literary fiction? What else is keeping us here? Let’s be honest. If I couldn’t dress up or do these small things for myself, I would literally lose my mind. I am just not interested in [writing something] where it is just one bad thing after another. Also, I don’t think it’s true to life. I’m out here—things are happening. I laugh a lot.