Slaves of New York
A character in “Spells,” one of these stories, is offered the following presents on her birthday: “a Godzilla lighter (flames shoot out of Godzilla’s mouth); a record of Maria Callas singing Norma; a silk survival map of the Arctic Circle; a glue gun; a cassette tape of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks; a large black plastic object with a pink pyramid-shaped cover (possibly made by the Memphis Design Collective) which might be a breadbox or an ice bucket; a ten-pound bag of Eukanuba health food for dogs; a book about wrestling; and a Statue of Liberty hat—a spiky helmet of flexible foam.” The narrator, a jewelry designer named Eleanor, comments,I know that this assortment of gifts means something specific and symbolic about people my age who live in New York and are involved in the arts. A list of gifts received by a flapper in the Jazz Age could tell you things about the period, and this stuff has significance as well. But what the gifts actually represent, I have no idea.
Eleanor is selling herself a bit short, as good stand-up comics will. Constructed with care, this list gives a rather accurate introduction to postmodern art’s willful confusion of certain hierarchical distinctions: between high and mass culture (Callas and Godzilla), between artwork and commodity (who can say whether any of these gifts was cheap or expensive?), between the unique original and the mass-produced imitation (“possibly made by the Memphis Design Collective”), between the aesthetic and the utilitarian (is the breadbox-ice bucket really an objet d’art? is the glue gun meant to be used for home repairs or to be appreciated for its symbolic mix of aggression and adhesiveness?), between the autonomy of art and the bondage of the pragmatic (note how the survival map conflates dire necessity and frivolous uselessness). Especially recommended for those who prefer examples to abstractions, Tama Janowitz’s short course in postmodernism is deceptively lucid.
At the same time, readers who are less than sympathetic to postmodernism may find themselves wishing for a more sharply satirical treatment of this effacement of distinctions. All such readers are likely to see here is current fashion in and around the East Village. For them, even the book’s high media visibility and commercial success may work against it, making it seem an instance of the posturing and hype it depicts. To some extent they are right. Like a piece of performance art, the book might be said to put the art milieu itself on display—that is, up for sale—as no less a commodity than any it contains. This milieu is dedicated to the 1980’s. It is a social gaffe, as Eleanor discovers at a party, to ask where someone comes from “originally”; it is a put-down for an artist to be told that his stuff looks like the style of the late 1970’s; cultural memory is so short that one hustler wants to hire John Lennon, William Shakespeare, Giacomo Puccini, and Jimi Hendrix to write an opera. Yet these stories too are devoted to the ephemeral; they allude to clubs, plastics, neighborhoods, and supermarket brand names without mercy for out-of-towners, still less for posterity. Much of the prose is ironic, but this is insufficient defense against the charge of complicity; all the Downtown artists Janowitz is contemplating base their work on at least some nuance of irony. In both cases, the irony sometimes seems no more than a disguise for uncritical enjoyment of trash.
If Janowitz’s subjects cultivate image at the expense of reality, surface at the expense of depth, one might say the same of her own spacy, sophisticated style, which forbids characters from showing signs of development or fictional fragments from cohering into a large whole. The collection almost becomes a novel, but not quite. Characters and experiences return from time to time. A cat named Snowball and a bad case of sun poisoning in Haiti migrate from one story to another; the unnamed woman who objects to questions about her origins comes back as the protagonist of the final story. Eleanor goes from living with her boyfriend, Stash, to living without him. The question of whether there is some greater whole struggling to emerge out of these parts is perhaps only the question of whether the book adopts any clear position toward its material.
Yet it would be a mistake to judge this collection as a realist novel manqué. It has its own unity—the unity of the comic. “I had all the regular human qualities—an unlimited capacity for suffering, and spending money.” “If I ever get some kind of job security and/or marital security, I’m going to join the feminist movement.” Like the naïveté of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the narrator’s insistence that she has “no idea” what all this means must be understood as a rhetorical ploy, an act in which she makes herself a hapless victim in order to make her...
(The entire section is 2000 words.)