Ruby is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day — and things weren’t all that great to begin with. Deep in debt after an artsy college education, she’s broken up with her boyfriend, lost her job at a coffee shop, and had to move home — to the basement apartment she grew up in, in a building where her father, Martin, is the super.
Martin’s day, consequently, is not going too well, either. His newly acquired habits of bird-watching and meditation are not helping; nor is Lily, a favorite old tenant, who, though recently deceased, still manages to provide a running commentary on his more questionable actions.
In “The Party Upstairs,” through Ruby’s and Martin’s alternating viewpoints, we watch the day progress — or devolve — toward the titular party, to be hosted by Caroline in her father’s penthouse apartment. Ruby and Caroline have been friends from childhood, their respective positions in the building neatly defining their relative status.
Caroline’s art is making marble sporks, which, she tells Martin, “started as this kind of comment about disposability and eco-devastation?” And cushioned by her father’s wealth, she “could claim art-making as her principal employment.”
Ruby, whose art is making dioramas, has no such luxury. It is in fact an interview for a job at her beloved Natural History Museum, arranged by Caroline, that sets Ruby’s day on its downward slide.
In the dioramas, Lee Conell gives us another nifty narrative metaphor — for the framing of her story, and for the story she’s telling. Though Ruby begins by saying, of her final college project, a series of dumpster dioramas: “I am interested in the way dioramas generate stories while sidestepping traditional narrative forms of rising action and conflict”; she later has cause to wonder whether, “This whole time maybe she’d just wanted to live inside them, to make her home in frozen moments.”
One diorama she’s planning, “The Clogged Toilet,” is especially telling, depicting Ruby and Caroline playing in Caroline’s bedroom while in the connecting bathroom Martin is fixing the toilet.
“How to convey, in a single diorama, multiple levels of pretend?” Ruby wonders. “Both of the girls would be pretending not only that they were Holocaust-orphans-sisters-survivors running from the Nazis, but also that they weren’t aware Ruby’s father was making repairs so close by. And this second game of pretend would be deeper, more frightening, not really a game at all.”
Suffice it to say that this second sort of pretense is about to hit the wall, and not in any diorama.
If this clever novel is occasionally uneasily balanced between social satire and emotional seriousness, so in a sense are its players, forever enacting the basement/penthouse comedy-drama of class consciousness, never letting on that it’s pretend until it’s too late.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.
The Party Upstairs
By: Lee Conell.
Publisher: Penguin Press, 320 pages, $26.