The Party Upstairs and the Super Who Has to Clean It Up
Lee Conell on the invisibility of working-class New Yorkers who are now being lauded as essential workers
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In The Party Upstairs, Ruby—out of college, out of work, and newly out of a relationship—reminisces often about her senior thesis, a series of dioramas depicting the trash room in the Upper West Side co-op where her father worked and she grew up. Later she interviews for her dream job, designing dioramas for The Natural History Museum. “I’ve never made a diorama,” Conell told me when I asked her about the recurring theme over email, “but I’ve dreamed of dabbling.” I respectfully disagreed. The Party Upstairs functions like a diorama in words. Taking place over the course of a day, the reader is thrust into a narrative contained by time and place, glimpsing the inhabitants of Ruby’s apartment building with voyeuristic clarity, as if the side of the building had been peeled away, as if the characters’ lived in a dollhouse of Conell’s creation.
The Party Upstairs opens with Ruby and her father Martin, the co-op’s super, trying (and failing) to meditate together. The frustration that bubbles through their forced silence quickly reveals the novel’s central tensions. Ruby has just moved back into her parent’s basement apartment and struggles to find herself and her future in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Martin attends to the maddening shitstorm (sometimes literally) that is building maintenance. While Ruby revisits her decades-old friendship with Caroline, the childhood playmate who occupies the co-op’s penthouse apartment, Martin uses meditation and bird-watching to try to calm his growing frustration with the extraordinarily needy tenants, which now include his own daughter. Told over a single day, the novel builds towards a swank party Caroline is hosting that evening, a party that Ruby may or may not attend and Martin will, no doubt, be tasked with cleaning up.
Thrilling and darkly humorous, Conell’s novel upends assumptions about class, family, and art. As with her previous book, Subcortical, winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award, Conell’s writing is funny, brave, and delightfully fresh.
Anya Groner: As with many first novels, there are autobiographical aspects to The Party Upstairs. Like Ruby, you grew up as the only child of a two-parent family in the basement of the apartment building where your father was a super. How much do your own experiences dovetail with Ruby’s?
Lee Conell: At first, I resisted this novel as it began to grow into something novel-sized, mostly because of the autobiographical elements, which I worried might be impediments to imagining in the directions I needed to imagine. But I kept feeling drawn back to it, and in turn it became ever more its own strange self. After a while, so much of the novel seemed like its own thing, apart from my life, that the remaining autobiographical elements started to seem almost playful. There’s something fun about inviting speculation as to what in the book might be secretly “most real” or “authentic,” and what might be fiction—in part because a number of the characters in the book are bent on bestowing Martin and even Ruby with this extra degree of authenticity due to their working class background…as if their economic status makes Ruby and Martin’s motives more pure than the wealthier tenants in the building. The novel ended up being far more concerned than I initially realized with complicating ideas of real-ness.
AG: Dioramas appear throughout your novel—on the cover which features a diorama of a cardboard girl climbing the cardboard stairs in a cardboard apartment building, in the Natural History Museum, in Ruby’s senior project. The narrative voice moves through the building as if it were a dollhouse. In the opening passage, for example, Martin, the super, is thinking about “the corporate lawyer in 4D [who] had called screaming with fear about a water bug in the hallway, the financial analyst in 9A [who] had called about her tampon-clogged toilet, [and] the hedge-fund-portfolio manager in 6C [who] had admitted he’d drunkenly tossed his keys on the subway tracks.”
I found myself thinking about how dioramas are both intimate and voyeuristic, like one-way mirrors. The people (or animals) in the display are unaware they’re being observed. What other parallels do you see between dioramas and novels? And how did your understanding of dioramas evolve as you wrote The Party Upstairs?
LC: I love your description of dioramas as both intimate and voyeuristic, almost mirror-like. The artist Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes often include mirrors. There’s this sense of observing our own selves becoming voyeurs. It’s something I think about a lot in both reading and writing fiction—part of the appeal is seeing inside someone else’s mind. Of course, that’s a bit of an illusion. I know I’m seeing the construction of another’s thoughts while also seeing myself in those thoughts, looking for moments of recognition. Dioramas seem to contain a similar distorted echo.
The diorama component also spoke to the way Ruby tries to preserve her memories of the past, to a degree that means she’s neither fully present with the people in her life nor able to admit that memory is an act of imagination.
AG: The apartment building functions as a metaphor for class. Ruby and her family live in the basement apartment, next to the trash room, while her wealthy best friend Caroline lives in the penthouse. When Caroline throws a party, it’s Martin’s job to pick the beer bottles from the roof. In a recent letter published in The Paris Review, you wrote, “Sometimes it seems to me that we’re unconsciously subscribing to one very limited story about inequality—the nonrich aspiring to be like the rich—over and over. But I’ve experienced a second story: that of the nonrich aspiring simply to live.”
How does your novel explore this second story of “the nonrich aspiring simply to live”? Are there other “second stories” that you hope to convey through your characters?
LC: Books about meditation practices and mindfulness often encourage the meditator to try to drop the storyline to which they’re clinging, consciously or unconsciously. Martin’s interest in meditation stems from his desires to lower his blood pressure and drop the frustrating storylines that swirl in his mind: about the building itself, yes, but also about the way he’s invisible to the tenants, even as he has to pay attention to their demands and lives.
One of the “second stories” that I hoped to convey is the psychic side effects of this invisibility. Class in America is often depicted as strictly aspirational, exploring the tension that derives from the premise of Person With Not Much Money wants all the shiny objects that Character With Lots of Money has. This narrative replaces discussions about a desire for basic dignity (access to affordable healthcare, housing, etc.) with assumptions about fetishistic consumerism. There’s certainly aspiration and occasional wanting of very shiny objects in my novel (shiny objects=extremely nice dresses), but my hope is that there’s also a story in there about how we treat others, how we project ourselves onto others, and how Martin’s job makes him hyper-aware of the flimsy safety net around them. Martin and Ruby both seek some form of sustainability so that they can get by without losing their sense of themselves.
AG: I can’t remember the last time I encountered so much trash in a novel! Trash is evocative, gooey, archeological, intimate. For your characters, it’s the stuff of romance, suffering, art, and shame. I get the feeling you enjoyed writing about trash. Your novelistic gaze goes where most of us look away. Why so much attention on trash? What can trash tell us?
LC: On a purely personal level, nearly every day as a child I witnessed great amounts of trash lined up in garbage bins by the elevator in my building. It’s the flipside of consumer culture, but it’s also its own landscape. And it’s a paradox of the city: Our inner lives are locked away, but there’s the trash of our life, in clear plastic bags, out there on the street for anyone to see. It felt like something that deserved attention.
At the same time, I think there’s a morality game around what we pay attention to, which distracts from the actual attention being paid! “Pay attention to me paying attention to this thing you’re ignoring, so that you can see I’m a good person!” Caroline and Ruby both play that game some. So—I was interested in looking at trash in the novel, but also interested at what the performance of that looking might…um… look like!
AG: Many of the wealthy characters are fascinated, often perversely, with suffering. As a kid, for example, Caroline leads Ruby in a game she calls “Holocaust-orphans-sisters-survivors” where she pretends they’re being gassed. There’s also Andy, an aspiring art photographer, who takes photos of “fringe people” beside “paragraph-long stories . . . about their desperation.” There’s so much dark humor in these scenes, even as they’re troubling. The line between compassion and exploitation is painfully blurred. What draws these characters to the macabre? What do their obsessions reveal about them?
LC: “Holocaust-orphans-sisters-survivors” is ridiculous in a lot of ways, but it points to Caroline and Ruby’s real desire to understand their history, even if they’re glamorizing it. There’s power in taking something horrible and making a game out of it, or a piece of art. When you are making a shape from a horrible thing, there’s strength being demonstrated. I believe on a real level these characters want to connect with something meaningful, something outside themselves. They want to feel they’re helping.
But this desire for connection happens in a system that is the product of all sorts of forms of exploitation. Caroline, Andy, and Ruby all struggle to see or acknowledge this exploitation, and their roles in it. Caroline and Andy’s obsessions specifically reveal their concern with connecting and understanding suffering, their concern with being seen as good people, and the thrill they feel as witnesses to that suffering, particularly as portions of their lives are very cloistered. That desire to be perceived in a certain way cuts off their own curiosity about and empathy toward what it is they’re actually perceiving. Another form of seeing suffering in order to be seen as a virtuous person who sees suffering. Ahh, again with the mirrors!
AG: The Party Upstairs came out four months into the pandemic, when New York City was in lockdown. What was it like for you to release a New York City novel at a time when NYC was undergoing such radical change? Do any themes in the novel seem more pronounced?
LC: Releasing a novel that takes place in NYC while NYC was changing so much felt surreal, a good reminder that nothing is static. The unexpected parallels did feel uncanny at times. The novel takes place several years after the 2008 economic recession. A struggling economy, debt, grown children moving back in with their parents feel less distant now than when I was writing the book. The rhetoric around essential workers that arose when the pandemic began, how all of a sudden “we” are seeing these workers as essential, important, and visible, there’s a lesson in power and point of view, there. Martin’s perspective in particular—that desire to keep body, soul, and dignity alive—felt resonant.