Several years ago, on a Houston freeway overpass, a graffiti artist scrawled “be someone.” Depending on which Houstonian you ask, this is an empowering statement or a cheesy platitude (or, somehow, both?). Either way, to people outside the city, this must seem forehead-slapping in its obviousness. Be someone, sure; what else would you be? But what Houstonians know—and what makes this artistic statement at least a little pointed—is that Houston has always been a place of personal rediscovery and self-definition. The key here is that you don’t have to be yourself; just being someone, anyone, will do.
Anton DiSclafani’s new novel, The After Party,taps into this notion of shifting identity. Set in the 1950s, in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood (one of the wealthiest in the country), The After Party focuses on the relationship between CeCe and Joan, wealthy women and close friends. CeCe, married, reserved, narrates the book, telling Joan’s story, fixated on her friend’s enigmatic nature. Joan is wild, bold, single (not fashionable at the time)—and carries the secret of what exactly happened to her years ago that made her briefly flee Houston while a senior in high school. Underlying all of this? The notion that both women are constantly watched by the society they move languidly through. For them, living in a world of parties and country clubs, rumors and obscene wealth, success means being someone others want to see.
This is what makes Joan so fascinating—not only to CeCe, but also to DiSclafani herself. Joan is most certainly herself, glamorous and challenging, but also guarded and enigmatic; she doesn’t seem to care who she is, or who’s watching her. “It would’ve been impossible to write from her perspective,” DiSclafani says, which is why the more relatable CeCe takes the reader through this strange world, becoming an audience surrogate. “I’ve always been interested in secrets,” DiSclafani tells me, “even in the short stories I was writing in college.” Writing about a mystery like Joan—a character defined by her inability to be defined—provides a challenge. “When do you give a clue? When do you hold back? When do you reveal information?” But DiSclafani finds this sort of challenge thrilling, as both a writer and a reader: “I’ll follow any character down that rabbit hole.”
The After Party takes place in the vortex of the past; the setting feels vertiginous and shiny, but this lushness is described in matter-of-fact observance (after all, CeCe is used to the world she narrates). But then, according to DiSclafani, “you’re never really writing about the past.” The After Party is about “friendship, and friendship is timeless.” It also portrays a past in which women were mostly pinned creatures—pinned down to homes, or pinned to men’s lapels as ornaments. “I don’t think it’s a big leap for a contemporary reader to relate to that kind of woman,” DiSclafani observes.
But writing about the past poses a moral dilemma too. “You can’t be judgmental of your characters,” DiSclafani says. “[As contemporary readers], we so clearly see the blind spots of the past. CeCe is not a worldly person, and she has many blind spots. It’s easy to look at a world like that and think of it preserved in amber, simplified. But I’m interested in understanding.” In this way, DiSclafani’s goal as a historical novelist (although, in a sense, aren’t most novelists dealing with history?) is to both embody the time period and also hover over it. It is, DiSclafani concedes, “a balancing act.”
It helps to have a setting as alien as Houston, Texas, and by alien, I mean…well, I moved to Houston two years ago. Before then, I knew absolutely nothing about America’s fourth-largest city. I’m writing this very article on a plane ride to Chicago, a city I’ve never been to, but which I have seen a million times on television, in books, in news stories; I have a sense of Chicago’s character. But Houston? Hell, what do you know about Houston? Yes, there’s oil. Anything else? And after two years, I confess, I’m not certain Houston has any unifying character; it’s too unruly, too sprawling, and the city winds up feeling like an ornate pot somebody dropped and shattered on the ground; the individual pieces are sharp and colorful, but they do not easily cohere.
“I am not from Texas,” DiSclafani says, “but I was almost born in Texas.” Although DiSclafani speaks with the poise and reserve of somebody like CeCe, River Oaks is not her world. “My parents met in La Porte,” she says, a city 30 miles outside of Houston, and not a place of obvious wealth. From there, where has DiSclafani gone? Creative writing professor at Auburn University, bestselling author of The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, another bestseller perhaps around the corner with The After Party. After all this, she could move to Houston—home of “be someone”—in a heartbeat.
Be someone? Unlike the characters in The After Party—who could use some graffiti in their polished lives—DiSclafani needs no reminder from a freeway overpass.
Benjamin Rybeck is the marketing director at Brazos Bookstore and author of The Sadness, a novel forthcoming in June from Unnamed Press. His writing also appears in Arts and Culture Texas, Houston Chronicle, Ninth Letter, The Rumpus, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Houston and doesn’t understand it, not even kind of.