We all know those kinds of people. We are all those kinds of people. You walk into the party or the art opening or the pub and survey the tableau. People acting in the ‘right’ way, trying to impress each other. People definitely not acting in the ‘right’ way and being totally unlikeable. People feeling awkward and shy, arriving too late or too early and dumped in the corner like a heavy winter coat. People who you want to be like and people who you absolutely don’t want to be like at all. People being desperate and embarrassing and wanting to appear ‘remark-able’ as Sam Cottington defines, ‘as in literally to be remarked upon—not wonderful or note-worthy’. People being full of shame and pretending not to be—‘she would deny that anything was wrong if you asked her.’ People covered in the grimy and dazzling little bits of other people. ‘People who happen to be there.’
A grubby reality of social pantomime with an awful and honest bunch of characters—I cringe, therefore I am—People Person is Sam Cottington’s debut novel and was published by JOAN earlier this year. The epigraph, much like the rest of the book, has this achingly glamorous sociality to it, like a Carrie Bradshaw Gonzo-style voiceover but sprinkled with a contemporarily-apt amount of meta-existentialism: ‘I now look back on periods of my life, and I think, was that really me? Was I doing those things?.’ It’s actually a Tennessee Williams quote, the perfect drumroll of hedonism for People Person.
Charlie, a self-defined-with-a-sarcastic-wink ‘People Person’ sees it all clearly (once they receive their glasses in the post from their parents)—‘yes I have vision, the world is my oyster!.’ Indeed, their world is an oyster, stylish and slimy (served with a sharp and sweet mignonette) and we slide down a whole icy platter of them together over the course of a grimy weekend. Off we go, careering into the night, drinking, snorting and howling with this People Person’s friends and acquaintances, all beloved, hated and ambivalently-received: ‘I wondered if I was desiring him. I wondered if I would care if I never saw him again.’
Cottington’s depiction of the art scene, as both cruel and inspiring, is all too recognisable: from People Person dropping out of art school to their navigating a life where it feels like no one has told them the rules of the game. The nepotisms and nuances are lightly traversed with knowing, cheeky criticism. People Person goes to an exhibition opening where they experience a deeply moving (but not necessarily likeable) performance by a successful artist, a peer who has wealth but no one knows how and no one talks about it. Their friend Ralph released a Google Doc that calls out artists with inherited wealth, and from which he now makes money by participating in embarrassingly titled panel events.
Partially trying to be artists, or at least figuring out how you might be one, People Person and their friends hold temp jobs and gig-work. The book carries that prevailing feeling of the impermanence of being in your 20s, like it’s some kind of anti-chamber to life where everything stands still whilst shaking furiously. People Person and their friends are both complicit insiders and weary outsiders in ‘the scene’ that they orbit, and they want to feel something and nothing: ‘we brushed the feelings of incredulity off our bodies’. But really People Person is all about trying to figure out what’s next, suffering the pressure to have fun, be productive, do it all, trying to conjure any and all affective experience whilst experiencing ‘the same things over and over again’—an effort that is hilariously exemplified, pulled out from the bottom of People Person’s bag, at the novel’s denouement.
Other hilarious (and fashionable) moments include: Charlie’s friend Roxy being described as having ‘a “London Dungeon’s” look’; the description of Clara wearing a brown floppy hat in a very 2010s Topshop boho vibe; and the ‘professional partiers’ in the aspirational combo of leather jacket and French summer dress (also quite Topshop hangover), chic and strained. All of Charlie’s friends seem to be looking back over their shoulders for something—apart from beloved Roxy, maybe, who is a jittery, triumphant motor—back to a sincerity, only to grab hold of it, throw it in the bin, and then jump in the bin after it.
As I finished reading People Person, I too crawled out the front door of a long-dead house party into a flat, bright autumnal morning. Both hungover and still drunk, fumbling around for my sunglasses between crumbs and keys and cigarettes in the bottom of my tote bag, I fell asleep on the tube home and dreamt that I had a sordid affair with my high school boyfriend, now rugged and sensitive. He told me that he was still in love with me but would never marry me because I wasn’t serious enough. It’s fine, I said, I don’t care.
Caitlin Merrett King is a writer and programmer living in Glasgow.
People Person by Sam Cottington is published by JOAN.