Slaves of New York Summary
by Tama Janowitz

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Slaves of New York Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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Slaves of New York was part of a wave of books published in the 1980’s that featured innovative writing and trendy subject matter. The identity of this generation of writers—sometimes known as the brat pack because of their youth—was similar to that of the upwardly mobile young professionals (“yuppies”) who invaded the financial and business worlds at that time. Tama Janowitz, who appeared on television talk shows and in slick magazines advertising a soft drink, was part of this group of creative young people who saw self-promotion, marketing strategies, salesmanship, celebrity, and the mass media as a medium of expression. Janowitz makes these people the targets of her satire in Slaves of New York.

The subjects of her stories are downtown artists, that is, those who lived in bohemian quarters of New York City generally situated below Fourteenth Street. The stories are set in the time when the art world of New York was booming with instant reputations and fortunes made by brash young artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. True to the art of the time, the stories also contain references to popular culture, brand names, television movies, commercial films, and music.

There are two major figures in Slaves of New York. One is Marley Montello, an artist who appears in five stories. His self-confidence is overweening, and his exploitative art projects expose the shallow, inflated side of the art world. Seven stories belong to a jewelry designer named Eleanor, who, like Marley, is in New York City on a quest for love, overnight success, and a good apartment. Unlike Marley, Eleanor is a simple soul lost in the heartless city—she is insecure, easily intimidated, and exploited by her more prosperous live-in boyfriend Stash. The self-absorbed Stash, who paints pictures featuring cartoon characters such as Bullwinkle and Mickey Mouse, holds the lease to the apartment he shares with Eleanor. She must either submit to Stash’s demands for devoted domestic service or find herself friendless, rejected, and, even worse, homeless. The feminist statement Janowitz is making is that although Eleanor has eschewed the world of marriage, children, and life in the suburbs associated with the traditional woman, her liberated artist’s life has diminished her well-being and her self-esteem. This serious point, however, is embedded in a loose series of sketches and stories that suggest an offbeat, quirky identity redolent of youthful iconoclasm and irreverence.