‘Who are we performing for?’: Will McPhail on the strange art of small talk

From The Guardian:

One morning this week, Will McPhail went out to buy a coffee. While fishing for his keys, he rested the takeaway cup on the roof of his car. A passerby spotted him.

“Oof,” the man said, with a convivial, wotcha-cobber gesture at the coffee. “Don’t drive off!”

“Nearly lost it there!” replied McPhail cheerily.

He hadn’t. “I knew exactly where it was, the whole time,” says McPhail now, from his Edinburgh flat. “I just wanted to join in. And then I said,” he winces: “‘That’d be 10 quid these days!’ These days! Like I know anything about coffee prices through the ages!”

McPhail has built a whole career on examining the minutiae of human interactions with fond exasperation and impish humour, the kinds of autopilot-patter we all deploy to smooth our passage through life. As a regular cartoonist for the New Yorker, McPhail pokes gentle fun at social conventions and the ludicrousness of following them when, in the end, we’re all going to die anyway. In one, Death himself stands on a doorstep, craning down to speak into an intercom: “It ruins the effect if I say who it is. Can you just come down?” A man dismisses a stork bringing a bundle of joy: “No, I ordered the lifetime of doing whatever I want.” A man and a woman on a date laugh, at ease and engaged – while, underneath the table, their duck legs are paddling furiously. Lady No-Kids is a fan favourite.

. . . .

“All the time, I find myself in conversations where I am saying things that I don’t care about, or even mean, just to join in the performance,” says McPhail. “It’s when I can tell that the other person is doing it too, that makes you think: what are we doing? Who are we performing for?”

His debut graphic novel In explores what might happen if we were to stop. Nick is an aimless and unfulfilled young artist, fumbling for meaningful connections in the most superficial ways. He cherishes small talk with bartenders, recommends craft beers he doesn’t like and tries to engineer a “usual” at the pretentious cafes where he works so as to be seen working. (“A lot of dudes who look like you come through here, man,” shrugs the barista.)

But midway through a banal exchange with a plumber fixing his leaky toilet, “just making the noises that will navigate us both out of the conversation unscathed”, Nick stumbles upon a superpower: saying what he really feels.

. . . .

“I’ve always been fascinated by how combinations of letters and words can change the mechanics of a conversation, and turn it from one completely different thing into another. When that’s happened to me, on the rare occasions, and I’ve been transported into this other person’s world … the book was an attempt to describe that feeling.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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