Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
SOURCE: “New Girl in Town,” in Wall Street Journal, July 22, 1986, Vol. CCVIII, No. 15, p. 28.
[In the following excerpt Sokolov objects to the substance of Janowitz's prose in Slaves of New York.]
Uptown in the shabby genteel offices of The New Yorker they have been waiting at least a decade for the aged editor William Shawn to step down. At age 80, he has become a laughingstock, devoting his once-distinguished, once-amusing magazine to n-part screeds on staple grains and vanished airplanes, indulging an old man's whim for young women writers of dubious (literary) virtue.
The latest of these Shawn-genues is Tama Janowitz, whose stories mostly chronicle clothes-conscious young women caught up in the current Manhattan art-and-club scene. Ms. Janowitz is in a position to know about her subject. In her real life, she is the queen of the art mob, goes to parties on the arm of Andy Warhol, has her picture on the cover of New York magazine, and now she lies exposed, down to her most unmentionable fiction, in Slaves of New York.
Should you happen to be swept up in the Janowitz craze to the point of actually opening this slovenly collection, you will discover a cast of characters ranging from pathetic Eleanor, slave of her boyfriend Stash, to that self-proclaimed saint and genius, the painter Marley Mantello. Do not look to them for depth (or even shallow) of character. What you get is what you see walking around the artburbs of Manhattan, in the store windows and bars of SoHo, Tribeca and the Lower East Side.
Ms. Janowitz is trying to report on the scene from the ambivalent position of an unenthusiastic participant. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this posture. It could work, but fiction is carried on through language, and Ms. Janowitz is not in control of the only one she's got.
She is, for instance, a bit shaky in the area of English vocabulary.
The always-tedious Marley returns to his apartment and discovers a smelly “curled black pile on top of the messy bed-clothes” and concludes that “some animal had performed its ablutions” there.
This passage cannot be taken literally. To perform ablutions is to wash, to wash the body or to cleanse a wine chalice in church. Since washing, in either sense, is not what Marley supposes the intruding animal did on his bed, the Janowitz reader has to make a choice: Either Ms. Janowitz doesn't know what “ablutions” means or she wants us to think that Marley doesn't. There's no way of telling, because Ms. Janowitz's prose is so restlessly indistinct that you never know how to take it. Now she is ironic. Now she does a parody of stiff, formal speech. Now she is spewing out a surreal list of dishes on a menu.
This account exaggerates the case, but not greatly. Some of the stories, the ones touched by the editorial caress of Mr. Shawn, are cleanly written in their fatigued, affectless way. But now that this collection lets us see Ms. Janowitz whole, we can see her for the art-world figment that she is, a writer for nonreaders. Without the still-potent imprimatur of The New Yorker, she would never have attained such high visibility.
This is why it matters so much what happens to The New Yorker. It is the only strong force for potential good left on our literary landscape. The rest is publicity or trend. But The New Yorker can still bring the general reader together with the serious writer, or could if it wanted. The worrisome thing is that the influence built up over decades is ebbing in the uncertain atmosphere of the Shawnian twilight.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605
SOURCE: “From the Hip,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 12, 1986, p. 1409.
[The following review provides a brief synopsis of Slaves of New York and comments on the book's range of characters and themes.]
From its opening tale, related flamboyantly by a rich girl turned prostitute, to its final case history of a modern sado-masochistic relationship, Tama Janowitz's first collection of short stories [Slaves of New York] is designed to attract the attention of the young and the trendy. But then, almost all of its characters are New York artists, art dealers, designers or models with reputations to make and high rents to pay; they know that catching the eye of the right people is what sells paintings or ideas—or whatever it is you're selling.
Janowitz keeps her balance on the tilted game board. She observes everything with a sharp eye but with a New York bohemian's true affection for her world, and applies her mischievous sense of humour to its artworks (“flatulent balloons”), personalities (“furious elves and fairies, in twentieth-century disguise”) and social events:
One artist … made strange movements with his mouth like a kissing gourami. One artist was so famous he refused to sit with the rest of us; he had his own private table on the balcony, where he was seated with a famous French movie actress. The one sitting across from me was quite drunk. … While he was talking to someone he picked up a full ashtray … and emptied it under the table.
Janowitz alternates various odd storytellers and the hip narrator of the case histories with two main narrators who are perfect comic creations. Seven of the twenty-two stories are told by Eleanor, an insecure jewellery designer months behind the latest fashions. Five others are narrated by the epic painter Marley Mantello, who plans to erect his own frescoed chapel next to the Vatican, when he gets financial backing, and says things like, “my feeling is, in the future we will have real heroes. Like me.” Eleanor is cowed by the arty people she knows and acutely aware of her own marginality, whereas Marley is certain he is a genius; together, they make up a balanced person.
As we witness Eleanor's and Marley's small daily humiliations and follow them around the city on their erratic quests for love, artistic immortality and a decent place to live, we begin to like them. Eleanor's jewellery starts to appear in glossy magazines; she scrapes up the courage—and the cash—to leave her possessive but marriage-shy boyfriend and rent her own bedsit, in which she throws a party almost but not completely spoiled for her by her anxieties. Marley is terrorized by an enormous New York tomcat, is evicted from his flat, and is more wounded than he admits when his best friend tells him his paintings are “like a lot of stuff done in the early seventies”—the deadliest insult in the art forum of the 1980s.
The collection's only real excursion outside Manhattan is to London. Eleanor nostalgically recalls the year she spent as a student in London; her mother's old acquaintance Lord Simeon, a professor at London University, invites her to lunch tête à tête in his tower, is terribly charming and eccentric in the face of her youthful American boorishness, promises to ring her soon and cook his special curry for her, and promptly forgets her. Eleanor is haunted by the memory of the glass case in his college which usually contained the body of the founder, Jeremy Bentham; the case was empty because the corpse was being held for ransom by a rugby team from a rival college.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2362
SOURCE: “Ghosts in the Machine,” in London Review of Books, February 5, 1987, pp. 12-13.
[In the following review, Dibdin discusses Janowitz's thematic concerns in the novel Slaves of New York.]
How do you like to be approached by a strange work of fiction? Do you prefer a hearty handshake (‘Call me Ishmael’), a more discursive line (‘All happy families are alike’), or a low-key manner (‘For a long time I used to go to bed early’)? What about this, for example?
After I became a prostitute, I had to deal with penises of every imaginable shape and size. Some large, others quite shrivelled and pendulous of testicle. Some blue-veined and reeking of Stilton, some miserly.
The narrator is a Jewish princess who took up her trade ‘when my job as script girl for a German-produced movie to be filmed in Venezuela fell through’; her pimp, Bob, had been a doctoral candidate in philosophy and American literature at the University of Massachusetts; their Avenue A walk-up is littered with empty syringes, douche bags, whips, garrottes, and packages of half-eaten junk food. ‘As far as his role went', Bob ‘could have cared less', but ‘I felt that … I was growing intellectually as well as emotionally. Bob was both sadist and masochist to me; for him I was madonna and whore. Life with him was never dull.’
The lead story in Slaves of New York reads like a come-on for a quite different book, featuring a cast of hip mutants strong on style, heavy sex and drugs, and ‘caring less’. Such a book would no doubt be successful: more so, perhaps, than the one Tama Janowitz has written, which may explain why her publishers have pushed it out front. But seekers after cheap thrills are going to be disappointed. Sex and violence are almost eerily absent from Slaves, and so far from ‘caring less', the characters who haunt its pages care obsessively about everything and nothing.
The bulk of the 22 stories are first-person narratives. Only in two of the others, ‘Snow-ball’ and ‘The New Acquaintances,’ is the author on something like top form, while the rest range from slight jests (‘You and the Boss,’ a swipe at the Bruce Springsteen myth) through stylised anecdotes (the two ‘Case Histories’) to a fable about a symbiotic relationship (‘Kurt and Natasha’). While there is much to admire here, the tone is often tiresomely arch and there is a sense of arbitrariness which disappears the moment Tama Janowitz slips into the fluid and treacherous mode where she is completely at home.
Most of these monologues are narrated by two characters, Eleanor and Marley Mantello, forming two discontinuous story-lines, like a soap-opera with half the episodes missing. We first meet Eleanor as one of the ‘slaves’ of the title. Art Buchwald tried to debunk Last Tango in Paris by joking that it was about the difficulties of finding accommodation to rent in the French capital. In Slaves that gag becomes a bottom-line reality. ‘There're hundreds of women,’ Eleanor warns a girlfriend who is thinking of moving to New York. ‘And all the men are gay or are in the slave class themselves. Your only solution is to get rich, so you can get an apartment and then you can have your own slave. He would be poor but amenable.’ Eleanor is in her late twenties and living with Stash, an artist who is ‘authoritative and permissive, all at the same time. In other words, I can do whatever I want, as long as it's something he approves of.’ But the alternative is bleak: an apartment on 14th Street at $1500 a month is ‘a real find’ even if you have to install the toilet and fixtures yourself. So for now Eleanor cooks, shops and cleans for Stash, walks his dog and deals with his moods: ‘sometimes I felt as if I were the sole member of the Bomb Squad: I had to defuse Stash.’ But it's his apartment, and since the jewellery she makes—'shellacked sea horses, plastic James Bond-doll earrings'—is not successful, her choice is between living with Stash on his terms and going home to her mother. ‘If ever I get some kind of job security and/or marital security, I'm going to join the feminist movement,’ Eleanor vows. In the end she gets a job and moves out, but finds herself ‘in the same mess, only in a different neighbourhood’.
Like Eleanor, Marley Mantello—a manic-depressive artist and self-styled ‘genius'—is at an age when drawing cheques on the future becomes more difficult. But there the similarity ends. ‘I would have numbered myself in with the rest of humanity, only I was one step above it: by that I mean I was an artist, which redeemed me.’ Even less successful than Stash, Marley cherishes grandiose dreams of building a ‘Chapel of Jesus Christ as a Woman’ next to the Vatican, but meanwhile starves on canned Chef Boy-ar-dee sauce and is evicted from his unheated apartment. He is also tormented by anxiety—‘Was I well enough to get up today? Did my stomach hurt? Was an unhealed cut on my finger a sign of cancer?’—and chilly draughts from the ruthless jungle world he perceives all around. His only defence is his ego, which he keeps inflated to lunatic proportions while subjecting his fellow artists to a mordant line in criticism: ‘he was basically a smart guy, basically talented. But the basically that I'm speaking of is basically mediocre.’ His paintings mythologise reality—Ulysses as a failed Forties artist in a denim jacket and blue jeans, Penelope living in a Cape Cod beach house—and this vision extends itself to the people around him: ‘gods and pixies’ who have ‘forgotten their true selves and are out trying to make a buck and win influential friends’. His comic potential is heightened by a stilted and rhetorical tone of voice (‘Say not so!’) but Janowitz's control ensures that the comedy never gets too safe. The concluding pages of ‘Life in the Pre-Cambrian Era,’ for example, show a mind on the brink of madness. Marley's work starts to sell, but our enduring image of him remains that fixed by Eleanor, watching his drunken behaviour at a baseball game: ‘out in left field, staggering around in circles’.
The way in which this image operates as both detail and metaphor is typical of the skill with which Tama Janowitz avoids the risk of anecdotalism. Slaves might easily have degenerated into a heap of gimmicky tales about wacky artist-folk, a Post-Modern Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, Biff cartoons filmed by Paul Morrissey. Despite the odd in-joke (one character ‘refused to travel above 14th Street, claiming that it led to mental decay’) this never looks likely to happen, thanks to Janowitz's success in making her subject-matter thematic: her characters create a bewildering range of ‘art objects', but first and foremost they create themselves. For this is a world where ‘essentialism’ is a dirty word, as the narrator of ‘Engagements’ discovers in her ‘Poetics of Gender’ colloquium. ‘Fixed identities’ are out: ‘to speak of identity is to speak of racism’; ‘post-gendered subjectivities’ and ‘the notion of the subject in progress’ are in. The same notion is expressed in more homely form by Eleanor's mother, who ‘had always told me I could be anyone I chose', while another character takes this to its logical conclusion: ‘everything that happens to you is because you want it to.’ Hence the greater stability of the first-person narratives in Slaves. In a world where you cannot ‘speak of identity', the pronoun of identity is paradoxically privileged because of its very ambiguity: I say ‘I', but so do you.
Sartre once told a questioner: ‘Obviously I do not mean that whenever I choose between a millefeuille and a chocolate éclair I choose in anguish.’ But that kitsch anguish is the air that these New Yorkers breathe. What to wear? Who to see? What to say? It's easier to stay home:
I found fun very traumatising, difficult even. In some ways it was more fun not to have fun. To me, having fun was almost identical to feeling anxious. I thought I preferred to sit at home by myself, depressed.
Everything demands a choice. Even one's appearance is not ‘fixed’. Told about a surgeon who will ‘trade work for paintings', one artist replies: ‘In that case, I'd like to have my whole self redone. But not my hair.’ Nor is who you are in any way determined by what you do: ‘Most of the people I knew were doing one thing but considered themselves to be something else: all the waitresses I knew were really actresses, all the xeroxers … were really novelists, all the receptionists were artists. There were enough examples of … receptionists who went on to become famous artists that the receptionists felt it was okay to call themselves artists.’ Any talk of one's background is strictly taboo:
‘I always meant to ask you—where are you from?’ I say. ‘Originally.’ ‘Where am I from?’ she says. ‘Where am I from? What kind of question is that?’ Is my question in terrible taste, or is she crazy?
Eleanor has no business asking such questions—she should be deciphering the signals people send about their choices. Unfortunately she is not very good at that, either. In ‘Patterns’ she falls victim to the stratagems of a gay fashion designer, who, typically, claims to dislike ‘any kind of game-playing’. Eleanor agrees: ‘“I've never been able to figure out the rules.” Wilfredo said he could appreciate this quality in me.’ Even when it is clear that she has been used, Eleanor finds it hard to believe: ‘I felt so adamant that Wilfredo and I were meant to be together.’ A similar sense of rightness also deceives Cora in ‘Engagements,’ when she learns that her dream apartment has been rented: ‘That was my apartment. It felt like my apartment.’ Feelings are not to be trusted out there in the semantic jungle.
Nevertheless, nostalgia for fixed roles and identities remains strong; the jungle bristles with animal life. Besides owning dogs which are treated with greater consideration than people, the characters in Slaves are compared with horses, llamas, beavers, panthers, salamanders, lizards, lions, gibbons, vixens, hornets, fawns, elephants, moose, orang-utangs, octopuses, gorillas, goats, rats, rattlesnakes, monkeys and mice in a frantic attempt to pin them down. As Eleanor reflects, ‘I had seen those National Geographic wild-life specials on TV … animals met each other, performed some little courting dance, and mated for life. They knew exactly what to do; they relied on instinctive behaviour that had not given their parents and grandparents any problems either.’ For humans, on the other hand, even eating is problematic. Tama Janowitz conveys the full shuddering recoil from food we have all felt as children, that panicky cry: ‘You expect me to put that in my mouth?’ Japanese restaurateurs in particular will not be voting her Ms Popularity this year, and devotees of tinned ham should also stay away. Food is often offered aggressively, in a ritual of domination and submission, notably when Marley is obliged to eat a huge breakfast prepared by ‘plump collector Chuck Dade Dolger', having been warned by his dealer Ginger that ‘he's going to think you're a wimp if you don't eat very much.’ The story is called ‘Turkey Talk’: Chuck and Marley don't talk turkey, they just gabble. But when Ginger offers a comment she is silenced: ‘These are men talking, Ginger.’ Marley doesn't mind people criticising his work ‘because I had a simple way of dealing with it—I didn't listen.’ The air is thick with messages, but everyone is transmitting and no one receiving. When Eleanor telephones home her mother interrupts her so that she can listen to two other voices on the line, inaudible to Eleanor, whose conversation is clearly more interesting to her than what her daughter has to say.
Despite the very real humour of the book, the underlying tone remains dark. This is not the bland affluent suburban West Coast world of The Serial, where anything goes and nothing matters. The machine these ghosts inhabit is a fruit machine: it pays out. At a party a stranger asks Eleanor about her relationship with Stash:
‘Is he rich?’ she said …
‘No,’ I said.
‘Well, why would you go out with him?’ she said.
Eleanor has no answer to that, but later, when a drunken male friend tells her, ‘You shouldn't act so desperate,’ she snaps back, ‘I consider life itself to be an act of desperation,’ and even the ebullient Marley is finally reduced to a numbed tone as he recounts his sister's pointless death. Like Stevie Smith, Tama Janowitz is aware that ‘being comical does not ameliorate the desperation.’ The narrator of Novel on Yellow Paper refers to the ‘talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts that come’. Eleanor comments: ‘Well, once again I am silently rambling on. I have to reel myself back in like a fish.’ In both cases, the self-deprecation is an essential element in a perfectly achieved tone of voice. The opening lines of a book can be deceptive; what really matters is whether the writer can find and maintain the appropriate tone. There is some unevenness in this collection, but in the best stories Tama Janowitz passes that test triumphantly.
In ‘Who's on first?’ an impromptu baseball game is effortlessly exploited as an extended metaphor for the oddly cosy, self-regarding world of Slaves: a world where everybody knows everybody, usually carnally; where adults behave like children and a five-year-old is the only one who knows what is going on, where nothing is predictable, not even failure. Eleanor wants to play, but is afraid of disgracing herself. When she arrives at the field she feels ‘like some actress who's walked on the movie set without her script. Obviously I don't belong.’ She is tempted not to play but to make her escape: ‘But the thought of stepping out from under the carbon-arc lamps of the imaginary world, a place brighter than day into the blackness that falls immediately beyond, fills me with terror.’
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 396
SOURCE: “Pre-Literate in Manhattan,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 18, 1987, p. 10.
[In the following review, Pilcer briefly considers several thematic implications of A Cannibal in Manhattan.]
Perhaps you've seen her Amaretto ads. The most visible of a highly publicized group of young writers who have been hailed “the literary brat pack,” Tama Janowitz has brand recognition. Her new book [A Cannibal in Manhattan.] has been launched with the breathless hype usually reserved for rock acts.
Despite the off-putting title, I was ready to be entertained by her deadpan humor and offbeat characters.
Unfortunately, Janowitz fails to find a voice for Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, as she did for her down-town Slave denizens. “I am nothing more than a savage,” says Mgungu. “I don't understand even the simplest theories of electricity.” Yet this cannibal does know his American brand names as well as the city's hottest clubs.
One hopes that Mgungu might be given some original observations to chew on. Instead, we are served such whopping platitudes as, “A life in the United States. How was I to know what people said or did is not the same at all as what they mean?”
The book itself features a photo scrapbook straight out of fanzinedom, including Janowitz and friends cavorting as the characters, complete with makeup and hair-stylist credits. I guess the hottest shot is of a wizened Andy Warhol, portraying Cannibal museum curator Parker Janius. Throughout, the pages are peppered with drawings of skulls and other exotica.
Ballpoint through his nose, Mgungu is a savage dressed up with nowhere to go but the cover of Time magazine. After all, cannibals should get their 15 minutes of fame too. The other characters are blatant stereotypes including heiress Maria Fishburn, played by Interview's Paige Powell, rock star Kent Gable, Parker Junius, pizza parlor Joe and a few others who listlessly manipulate poor Mgungu.
It could even be said that Mgungu's naive tone reflects his creator, who told Paper, a downtown magazine, “It was really just me trying to be this man. To me society is a big con. I never quite figured out the skills to get along in society.”
Finally, what we have is a portrait of greed: a publisher who will package a best-selling author's juvenilia and a promising writer who doesn't know the difference. Could Mgungu be an allegory for Janowitz's cynical exposure in American media?
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
SOURCE: “Into the Faded Air, the Torpid,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,431, March 4-10, 1988, p. 245.
[In the following review, Reading discusses the texts and subtexts of A Cannibal in Manhattan.]
To the South Pacific island of New Burnt Norton, home of the sometime cannibalistic, almost extinct Lesser Pimbas, comes nubile New York billion-heiress Maria Fishburn—ostensibly to teach algebra to the hapless natives under the auspices of the Peace Corps, but really because she fancies the tribe's president-elect, five-foot purple-skinned Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, having seen his picture on the front of the National Geographic years earlier and fallen in love with him. Maria dispatches her prize back to the States. The ensuing culture-shock, recorded in Mgungu's idiosyncratic first-person English, is the subject of Tama Janowitz's amusing picaresque fiction [A Cannibal in Manhattan.]
The noble savage serves, of course, to accentuate the real absurdity, viciousness and debasement of the sophisticated civilization into which he is deposited. With somewhat forced ingenuousness the quondam cannibal plods a well-worn itinerary through the disaster zone of modern urban social and psychotic mess. The satirical sallies include a jab at piety (“Oh, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, I prayed, suddenly turning to religion in a time of need”), a memorably funny encounter with a recalcitrant airborne jakes and a gnashing of teeth at the vagaries of airline cuisine (“a very hard roll, soggy in the center and topped with tiny seeds like gnats, while within were some curious greasy strands of meat”).
The flavour is of mild Waugh fare. The curator of the Museum of Primitive Cultures has invited Mgungu to participate in an International Dance Festival—“The Polynesian girls' troupe has done nothing but pick up men since they got over here. The Whirling Dervishes have refused to come out of their room for three days unless I send up a goat for them to sacrifice.” And the more urbane culture of the Whitney is sent up as our savage critic ponders the confusing exhibits of blank canvas, tar and feathers, a dead chicken, smashed pottery and an alarm clock—the lauded representatives of contemporary Fine Art.
There's an element, too, of black mischief, when, in a bout of inadvertent atavistic anthropophagy, the hero eats barbecued bits of his newly-espoused Maria. By now he's involved with the underworld and the landscape has hardened to the gritty, grot-strewn grey areas of the city. Maria, evidently involved in junk-traffic (and having been, in part at least, attracted to the islander by his knowledge of a unique New Burnt Norton narcotic), has been wasted by her seedy pals.
Indeed, A Cannibal in Manhattan is at its best when dealing with the seedy. The cartography of garbage-and-stray-dog waste land is impeccable. Mgungu's sojourn with the winos is funny, compassionate and productive of a humane Dickensian character-sketch—Daddyo, a Vietnam veteran whose costume incorporates a defunct television cabinet and whose demise is unexpectedly affecting.
A swatch of photographs with spoof captions may at first appear to enhance the “reality” of the New York and New Burnt Norton backgrounds, but is ultimately no more than a sham avant-garde detraction; nor is there much to justify cluttering the pages with irrelevant mediocre graphic design doodles.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7293
SOURCE: “Fifteen Minutes over Soho,” in Esquire, November, 1988, pp. 170-84.
[In the following essay, Kaye presents a detailed portrait of Janowitz's personal life, commenting on her professional milieu and various critical attitudes toward her work.]
From the back she looks like a stick figure drawn by a child. From any angle, she clearly aspires to be both a rebel and a waif. Her abundant hair has been likened to a bird's nest, a furry wigwam, a lion's mane. It is going gray at the temples.
Had she had less distinctive hair, her life might have been quite different. The hair has been useful in furthering the career of a writer whose most notable creation has proven to be herself.
Wherever she goes, people stare at her. Those ignorant of who she is can tell that she is Someone. As much as she solicits attention, obtaining it seems to unnerve her and to reduce her to a state that is both zoned out and out of control. Her face goes dead, her eyes roll upward, her head bobs from side to side. When she smiles, her face changes. Her smile is sweet and sometimes wistful. It lightens and softens her face and disappears in an instant.
Her eyes are lined with black, brightened by blue contact lenses. She says she wears tinted lenses because they are easier to find if one drops out, though that is probably not the only reason. Her skin is whitened with Germaine Monteil makeup, her lips reddened with lipstick that she reapplies even when she doesn't need to. “If I could get it down,” she says, “I'd look like one of those Warhol silk-screen portraits where it's all mouth and then eyes.”
She looks better without makeup but she doesn't think so.
THERE IS NO PETER PARKER
Tama has just agreed to be portrayed in a Marvel comic. The thought of this makes her smile. She always smiles when she contemplates doing something that will upset people. “I love to upset people,” she says, “I don't know why.”
Now she chews a piece of Care Free gum while the episode she'll appear in is detailed by the editor of Spider-Man.
“Peter Parker, who is Spider-Man, has written a book,” he explains, “and he'll be going on the talk shows and you'll be on the talk shows with him.”
“I don't want to go on the talk shows,” says Tama. “I thought I was going to get to be in the comic book.”
“This is in the comic book,” the man tells her. “There is no Peter Parker. There is no Spider-Man. These are all characters.”
Tama laughs. Her laugh sounds like a small bird gasping for air. Then she says, “Do you use many other authors?”
As it happens, Tom Wolfe was a Marvel comic character in 1968, though Tama is surely, as she puts it, “the first Princeton fellow to be in a Marvel comic.”
She regards it as “fun and goofy.” Her publicist regards it as “just totally Tama.” Others are apt to regard it as one more in a growing list of activities that would seem to qualify Tama for tenure only on Hollywood Squares.
“Like, being in a Marvel comic or any of that stuff, I know it's going to drive people crazy,” she says, “and I do get upset when they act horrified and nasty and it does hurt my feelings and make me feel bad but I can't help it and I can't stop myself from wanting to upset them more. And then people go, like, ‘Well, who does she think she is? Her fifteen minutes are going to run out pretty soon.’”
PAGING MR. SO AND SO
The apogee of Tama's brief and controversial career came lately, with her involvement in the movie Slaves of New York. To the degree that she views herself as Cinderella—which is considerable—the making of this movie has been her pumpkin. Every afternoon, she goes to the set, mostly to hang out. Before filming started she never knew what to do with herself each day when she had finished writing. She would become bored, fretful, lonely; she has no hobbies. Now, when people ask her about the movie, she tells them, “I don't know what I'll do when its over.”
The movie began shooting in April 1988. In addition to a place to go in the afternoon, writing the script has given Tama several other things she always wanted: a collaborative project, the ability to get credit cards at last, and, potentially, a craft to fall back on if she can no longer get published. It has also given her the friendship of the producer Ismail Merchant and the director James Ivory, two elegant and accomplished men. “So now I'm like working with these guys,” says Tama.
In early spring, she accompanied Merchant and Ivory to Los Angeles, where they held auditions. “It was the most fun thing I ever sat through. I mean, like there I was in the Beverly Hills Hotel and everything and you'd hear, ‘Paging Mr. So and So.’”
As all writers do, she wants to feel that her work is loved, that she is loved for her work. This has eluded her among literary people. With Merchant and Ivory she had found it. “I mean it's just been overwhelming,” she says. “They're completely respectful of me. They had me out to their house in the country, they had me out to dinners. I've never been treated like this before where I felt like people were interested in my feelings and liked me.”
Ivory appears to be an unlikely collaborator for Tama Janowitz. He wears well-pressed khaki pants, has neatly combed silver hair, and looks like a man who could afford a large yacht but would consider it more tasteful to own a small one. He seems out of place on this movie set in a building in TriBeCa, where a messy room with graffiti-covered walls replicates the disarray of a downtown artist's apartment.
During a break, Ivory comes over to Tama to talk about some rewrites. She smiles and chews her gum faster. Ivory tells her, “That scene is nine pages. The whole script is 121 pages. We can't have such a monstrously heavy scene, so give it a rethink.” Tama nods earnestly, repeatedly, her mouth slightly open. She takes a pen out of her purse and gnaws on it.
“Now,” says Ivory, “what does the scene need to tell us?” He speaks with the slightly forced joviality of a teacher who is trying not to intimidate a frightened pupil. Rapidly, he enumerates the scene's four salient points, ticking them off one by one on his fingers. Tama nods, keeps chewing on the pen, decides to take notes, fumbles in her purse for a piece of paper. She settles for an opened envelope.
One of the actors watches her. Tama thinks he's cute, but she's heard he chases all the extras, and she's concluded he's trouble. Still, she keeps looking at him.
She prefers to have a boyfriend but usually doesn't. When she does, it ends badly. Her recent affair with a wealthy Texan fell apart after six months when she asked, “Where is this going?” and he said, “No place.” Shortly after that he married a salesgirl from Woolworth's.
Tama used to suspect that her love affairs were disasters because she didn't like men. She's changed her mind.
“The truth is I just love men,” she says. “I think men are so great. I mean, they add excitement. You know, I mean, the men want to hang around with the men, and the women want to go out with the men—we're all like anxious to be with the men. I'm just as guilty of it as the next person.”
For most of her adult life she's lived alone. She's tired of it.
SHE'S SO MUCH SMARTER
Her closest friend is her mother. They talk on the phone several times each day. Phyllis Janowitz has red hair as thick as Tama's, a quiet voice, and a guileless manner. She is a respected poet who teaches at Cornell University. She spent the first part of her working life as a wife, a mother, and a dietician.
“I feel like she's better than I am,” says Tama. “I feel like she's so much smarter and her poetry's fantastic and she's better looking and like I'm just a watered-down version of what she would have been if she'd lived in a time when women didn't have restrictions placed on them.”
“She always says that,” her mother says. “It makes me feel good. But I don't believe it.”
THE SIXTIES CAME ALONG
Tama's father is a neo-Freudian psychiatrist. She was three when he finished his residency at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute in San Francisco. She was five when he moved his family to Amherst, Massachusetts.
Early on, it was apparent that Tama loved to read and draw. Her parents neither encouraged nor discouraged her. “I really believed,” her mother says, “that you're born to do something and that you're the only one who knows it.” She was no more directive about when to go to sleep or what to wear. “I don't think I told her to do anything,” she says. “I guess the Sixties came along.”
Her father was equally permissive. “He didn't mind if I went into his room,” says Tama, “and read his Playboys. The only thing you had to be careful of was not making noise when he was seeing patients.”
When Tama was eight her parents decided to take her and her younger brother to Esalen for a year. But Esalen was not open to children. “My parents couldn't believe it,” says Tama. “They said, ‘Esalen is supposed to be this free place and the people are naked and it's beautiful and they won't let children go there? What kind of double standard is that?’ So we never made it to Esalen.”
I'LL FINALLY HAVE A FRIEND
Tama viewed her mother as “a poet in a dream world.” She viewed her father as “more rooted in the concrete.” This might have been a good combination for a marriage; as things turned out, it wasn't.
Tama was ten when her parents divorced. They were the only divorced couple in the neighborhood. Tama's friends were told by their parents that she was a bad influence and that they should not play with her. Tama was lonely and frightened. She became closer to her mother.
Her mother was suffering, too, and late at night she confided in Tama. She told her about her own loneliness, her own fears. She told her about her frustrations with work. Tama was too young to have any advice to offer. Instead, she would listen, ask questions, try to console her. “She's so kind,” says her mother. “I think I'd be dead if it wasn't for her. I couldn't really live without her.”
“And it's funny, but even before she was born, I thought, when she's grown, I'll finally have a friend.”
After the divorce it seemed to Tama that her father always had a new wife or girlfriend that she did not like. She did not think that they liked her either. “Some did,” her father recalls, “some didn't.”
Of more concern to Tama was her father's opinion of her. Her mother always maintained that he, too, disliked her. “The only explanation that we've ever come up with,” she says now, “is that Tama reminds him of me. And he never accepted her. He always made her feel like she was a no-good bitch.”
“It was never true,” says Dr. Janowitz, “that I did not care for Tama. That's something Phyllis did to her. She used Tama as an ally and tried to convince her that I was the enemy of both of them. And I guess she did.”
Tama's sense that her father held her in contempt is one of the few things about herself that she does not like to discuss. “I'm sure it affected me a lot,” she says flatly, “and I'm positive it gave me a lot of motivation to prove myself. Whatever.”
When Tama was twenty-three her first book was published. It was called American Dad. At the time she told an interviewer, “My father is a bastard but I've resolved that issue.” The book told the story of a disagreeable, overbearing, oversexed neo-Freudian psychiatrist who accidentally kills the narrator's poet mother. “Well …” says Phyllis Janowitz, “of course it's totally fiction.”
Ultimately, Tama's attitude toward her father became far more generous than her mother's. “But I'm not my mother,” she says. “I'm the child.”
WHITE RATS AND RABBITS
Phyllis Janowitz supported her children on grants she won for her poetry. Money was always scarce. They never went to movies. They had a television, but it had bad reception. For entertainment they played cards and went to the library.
At home, they read a lot but rarely talked about what they read. “We just switched books,” says Tama. They always read during dinner. The pages were smudged with spaghetti sauce, little darkenings from London broil, butter from baked potatoes. Tama and her brother did the cooking.
Their tiny house was filled with plants. Tama raised white rats and rabbits in the basement. Occasionally the phone would ring, but nobody answered it.
THIS BLEAK TOWN
“The time when it was the worst for me,” says Tama, “was when I was about fifteen and my mother would take me with her when she went to get her unemployment check. It was like in this bleak town where steelworkers were unemployed and there were signs for jobs at Arby's and we'd wait in line with people covered with mud and dirt. We'd wait a really long time. I found it really depressing.”
One day, her mother discovered that a magazine had accepted two of her poems when she received a check for $200. “I was prancing around the living room,” says Phyllis Janowitz. “I was just so high. I think anything a parent gets a lot of joy out of has got to make a big difference to a kid, and I'm sure that gave her the idea that the rewards for writing—even though they're not apparent for a long time—when they come it's fantastic. … She had seen me so miserable and depressed and always at my worst and then to see me so happy.”
“God knows what it did to her.”
PEOPLE BEING NICE TO ME
It is Tama's birthday. She is thirty-one years old. Her friend Paige Powell, the advertising director of Interview magazine and one of Andy Warhol's closest friends, is giving her a party.
Tama became friends with Paige and Warhol in the summer of 1984, after Tama's cousin, who worked at Interview told Paige that Tama was going through a bad time in the wake of an ended love affair. Paige had a blind date that night and asked Tama to come along. Warhol heard about the date, thought it sounded interesting, and also went. “And that,” says Tama, “was the beginning of it.”
Once a week they convened at Cafe Luxembourg, the Ritz, Cafe Roma, Il Cantinori, Le Cirque. Paige recalls Tama saying, “This is so special to me to go out, to get all dressed up and look forward to something.” She had begun to define her persona as an orphan in an evening gown.
Tama came to regard Warhol with the worshipfulness she now bestows on Merchant and Ivory. He was another man old enough to be her father who treated her kindly. She thinks of Warhol often when she goes out and especially when she is at Texarkana, a restaurant they often went to together and where her birthday party is now taking place.
She arrives early, wearing a pink Mongolian lamb coat, black stockings, a fitted black top, and a yellow spandex miniskirt.
Greeting her guests, Tama chews gum, drinks a beer, plays with her hair. Often she says, “I have no friends.” At other times she says, “I have as many people I could call in the middle of the night as anyone else.” The most important of these is Paige, one of the few people, besides her mother, with whom Tama is at ease. In the weeks after Warhol died, Paige was unable to function. Tama moved in with her, took care of her, tended to literally hundreds of queries and requests that Paige could not deal with. In those weeks, Paige saw that Tama has more sense and substance than her patient-on-a-day-pass manner suggests. She may also have learned that unlike most people, who reveal their craziness only to those closest to them, Tama shows only those closest to her that she is actually sane.
Soon Tama is seated in the center of a long table, opening her gifts. She is flanked by her neighbor Jerry Mack, who works at CBS, her two male cousins, her publicist at Crown, and the dress designer Nicole Miller, who was once part of the Warhol circle. She keeps saying, “I'm not used to people being nice to me.” This is something she often says.
Stephen Sprouse arrives with Debbie Harry. Both are dressed in black. Sprouse gives Tama a green minidress he designed and once lent her to wear on Late Night with David Letterman.
Tama hurries to the bathroom to put on the dress. She leaves her miniskirt in the bathroom. When it is returned to her it is folded into fourths and is smaller than a napkin.
Throughout the evening Tama disappears often to renew her lipstick and comb her hair. For dinner, she orders a stuffed green chili and salmon. She eats much faster than everyone else.
By 1:00 she decides to go to the set, where they will be shooting throughout the night. The party ends. She puts on her pink lamb coat. The coat is very short and very fluffy. Beneath it her legs look even longer and thinner than usual. She steps out quickly into the chilly night air.
She is as famous as she ever fantasized being, the embodiment of the exotic creature she hoped to become. She hurries down the street, driven by restlessness, energy, and complex cravings.
As she has always been, she is fixed on her destination.
HER WHOLE IDEA
She began writing short stories at Barnard. She had arrived there with a trunk on which she and her mother had pasted wallpaper embossed with naked ladies. The trunk was packed with jeans, sweaters, a ruffled purple dress from the Salvation Army, and a long-sleeved gold lamé tube top.
She no longer remembers what her first stories were about. She remembers only that people were shocked by them. “That,” says her mother, “was her whole idea.”
“I would read my stories in class and the other women would be so horrified and the teacher would like go, ‘Oh, God, what has she brought in now?’ It was like all these people were responding to my stories.” This seems to be the point at which her literary ambitions were born.
SOMEONE WHO CAN'T WRITE YET
After college, she worried that she could not make a living. She did what educated people sometimes do in that situation. She went back to college. She won a fellowship at Hollins College in Virginia. She went there thinking, “Well, in a year I'll find out if I can write.” By the end of that year she had written American Dad. She sold a section to The Paris Review. She sold the entire novel to Putnam.
It was, she said shortly after its publication, “not the most perfectly written book. But … it has the raw energy of someone who can't write yet.” This perception did not go unshared. The New York Times Book Review said the book's “fine comedic inventiveness” was “consistently undermined by the lack of grace—and, even more so, precision.” On the other hand, says Tama, “I didn't expect to get reviewed in the Times. That was like wonderful in itself.”
Putnam did not publicize American Dad. It was barely distributed and sold fewer than a thousand copies. She wrote a second book, A Cannibal in Manhattan. Putnam rejected it. So did all the other publishers to whom her agent sent it. She wrote a third novel, Memoirs of a Megalomaniac. No one wanted that either. She kept writing. She fantasized about being famous. In her fantasies everybody knew her name, wanted to know her, liked her.
She had been raised on grants and academic handouts; now she lived on them: first a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, then $12,500 from the National Endowment for the Arts. She moved back to New York, found an apartment, bought a plywood platform bed and a ten-dollar typewriter table. She began a fourth novel.
She finished the book. She couldn't get it published. She applied for more grants, and got them. She worked all day. At night, she watched people dining in restaurants on Columbus Avenue. “It was just this feeling like here's all these people and I can't get through to anybody.”
ALWAYS THE GIRLFRIEND
She took to wandering around downtown Manhattan. On many nights there were art openings. She discovered that anyone could go to them. At each opening, there were stacks of invitations to more openings. It was 1982, the beginning of what she calls “the East Village thing.”
There were parties, new clubs, new galleries. There were dealers poised to cash in. Newly rich artists who would later be lucky to sell a canvas for $300 held forth on the hazards of being a genius.
She moved in with an artist who had once been an assistant to Warhol. He paid the rent, she bought the groceries and cooked him elaborate dinners. At night they went to the Disneyworld of downtown clubs, Area. Tama wore purple lipstick and a leather jacket and was too shy to talk to anyone. “She was always meek,” Paige Powell recalls, “and always the girlfriend.”
Every morning she wrote five pages. She completed a fifth novel. When it didn't sell, she thought, “I can't spend another year doing this.” She decided to write short stories. Those she could finish in three days to three months. She could send them to magazines and get a response quickly. At the very least, she says, it would “speed up the rejection process.”
A PASSIVE YOUNG WOMAN
She had been writing stories for three months when an editor at The New Yorker called and said they wanted to publish “The Slaves in New York” a story about a passive young woman who has difficulty making a living, frequents the downtown club scene, and cooks elaborate dinners for her unpleasant artist boyfriend. The story ran in the December 31, 1984, issue. It was followed by three more stories about the same characters. Suddenly, it seemed as if everyone was reading them. “It's fun,” Andy Warhol said of Tama's work, “to read about people you know disguised under other names.” Tama's boyfriend didn't think so.
It was not long before she had moved out of his apartment into a ten-by-thirteen-foot apartment of her own. She hung a four-by-six painting of herself on the wall. She kept writing. She had come to believe in “visualization.” She used it often: she pictured herself on a talk show, she pictured her name on the best-seller list, her face on a magazine cover. She pictured herself in the company of glamorous people.
A SECOND SHOT
In the summer of 1985, Crown Publishers signed a deal with Tama for a book of short stories. They paid $4,000 for a cardboard box filled with her work. Tama desperately wanted the book to sell. “I had written the other book, and it didn't do a damn thing because nobody knew me and they didn't promote it. So then I was broke for five years and I couldn't get a damn book published. Finally I get a second shot at publishing a book. I was determined I wasn't going to go through that ever again.”
This portended that she would have to do something a bit more radical than sit at home, visualizing fame.
She had just begun her friendship with Andy Warhol. Looking at Warhol, Tama would think, “Here's this person who goes out every night and the press always writes about him. They never say nice things, but it doesn't bother him.”
Looking at Warhol, gossip columnist Richard Johnson believes, “Tama got an idea about how to make herself famous. And she copied him, and it worked.”
IT BECOMES ITS OWN ANIMAL
On December 18, 1985, six months before Slaves of New York was published, the New York Daily News ran the following item: “Fiction writer Tama Janowitz was seen with Snap artist Patrick McMullan at the BeBop Cafe, Kamikaze, TNR, Area, and the Saint in one night. ‘I hear great lines and think—how can I work that into a story?’ she says.”
McMullan took pictures for Details and New York Talk, magazines that covered the downtown scene. There was something going on downtown every night, and McMullan was always invited. Tama met him in November 1985 and began going around with him.
He took many pictures of her and made sure they were published. He introduced her to the columnists who had helped girls of the moment like Dianne Brill and Lisa E. become, in Daniel Boorstin's phrase, “famous for being well known.”
“Although with Tama there was a little more substance,” says McMullan, “because she had an actual book coming out.”
She also had a black beauty mark pasted on her cheek, a gold leather jacket covered with graffiti, a penchant for making charmingly self-effacing statements in a voice that sounded like Judy Holliday on Thorazine. Soon, each time she went out, she was written about. “Then a lot of times when I didn't go out they'd mention that I'd been there. I mean, it takes over itself, it becomes its own animal.”
WHAT SHOVES IT UP THERE
The implicit message of Tama's publicity campaign on her own behalf was not lost on Crown's publicity department. “Tama was willing to do anything,” her publicist, Susan Magrino, says now, “short of, you know, compromising.”
Soon Tama and two friends pinned banners reading Slaves of New York across their chests. They marched into the Four Seasons at lunchtime. They handed out book excerpts. This incident was approvingly detailed in a New York magazine cover story about Tama. Tama posed for the cover picture in a meat locker, alluring in a low-cut black dress and airbrushed cleavage. After that Susan Magrino's job became easier. All that summer Tama was interviewed by writers of soft features. Items appeared whenever she had a book signing or went to the parties at which she was now a welcome addition. “When you combine beauty, intelligence, and humor,” asks her socialite friend R. Couri Hay, “doesn't that spell good guest?”
With each interview and appearance, Tama further refined her image. At first, she had presented herself as a fashionable underdog. Now she upped the ante on both halves of that equation, achieving a persona that was unspeakably hip and pathetically beleaguered. She wore black leather and a leopard-skin belt. She was quoted as saying, “Life is incredibly difficult.”
In midsummer she became the star of the first “literary video.” This was Crown's designation for a four-minute commercial to be aired on Showtime and HBO, using MTV techniques to sell books to people who don't read. It showed Tama walking through Manhattan's meat-packing district in an evening dress, Tama at dinner with Andy Warhol, Tama discoursing about the “raw energy” of her work, dressed in clothes borrowed for the occasion from Betsey Johnson. Only the absence of genuine wit kept it from achieving the director's stated intention. This was to portray Tama as “a Gracie Allen of the Eighties.” The video got her booked on the Today Show.
Soon, she was telling David Letterman and Joan Rivers the same stories about the transvestites outside her apartment. Soon, she was smiling prettily on Good Morning America while editor Gordon Lish intoned that if self-promotion was all right for Hemingway and Twain it was all right for Tama Janowitz. Within the literary establishment there didn't seem to be many others who thought so. But the literary establishment was not essential to the realization of Crown's dreams for Tama, who was, in the words of Susan Magrino, “too fabulous to be wasted on the book pages.”
Slaves of New York made The New York Times best-seller list in mid-August 1986. It peaked at number fifteen. “It was never going to do something like number three,” says Tama, “because like penis was in the first paragraph so it wasn't Book of the Month Club and that's what shoves it up there.”
I MEAN, HOW COULD THEY DO THAT?
In Tama's closet are two cardboard boxes filled with clippings. They contain articles from the Chicago Sun-Times; The Chronicle-Herald of Halifax, Nova Scotia; The Milwaukee Journal; the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa, California; and dozens of other newspapers. The clippings show that Slaves of New York made the best-seller list in every major city in the United States. They also show that Tama's publicity campaign in her own behalf became distasteful to the journalists she was trying to charm. “Citizens,” reads an article Tama clipped from The Boston Globe at the time her video was released, “it's gone too far.”
This perception was pervasive. It did her little good with critics when A Cannibal in Manhattan, a book she had completed some years earlier, was reworked and published in the fall of 1987. Her editor, Betty Prashker, was disappointed when Tama brought it to her. “I had hoped it would be more like Slaves,” she says. “We talked about it. We discussed it, and this was what she wanted to do.”
Tama's cardboard boxes contain dozens of reviews of Cannibal. They are far less favorable than the lukewarm reviews she received for Slaves of New York. “Tama Janowitz,” James Wolcott wrote in Vanity Fair, “has her own pinup fantasies. Publicity is her satin sheet.” The book, wrote Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, was essentially “the jottings of an untalented arriviste.”
“My feelings are hurt,” she says of these critiques, “and you feel like, oh how could you say this, but it doesn't bother me that much because what can you do, you're writing the best book you can. And the other side of me feels glad that they trashed it because mostly the books that I don't like are the ones getting the lovely reviews.”
Tama also kept a copy of the most vehement attack against her. It was published in The New Yorker, the sine qua non of her success. “All that this novel is about,” wrote Terrence Rafferty, “is a writer feeding greedily on her own reputation.”
Rafferty also discussed Tama's work in Slaves. Most of the book was written, he said, “in the glib, soothing voice of a sitcom.” “It was weird,” says Tama, “like it was weird. I mean how could they trash the same stories they themselves had published? At the same time, when somebody's going on being so irate you're sort of flattered to have that kind of vitriol, and the fact that they're like screaming does give me sort of a thrill.”
I'M JUST AS MISERABLE AS THE NEXT PERSON
Tama is at a book signing attended by twenty-three young authors. Ten of them are women. Tama is the only one who does not need to wear her name tag, and she is not wearing it. The signing is being held at the Scribner's bookstore on Fifth Avenue. Tama has been placed in one of the most prominent spots, on the landing at the top of the staircase. Several other female authors look up and glare at her.
Before she became successful, she avoided the literary world. The gossip made her feel competitive and failed. She did not like hearing about someone's $50,000 advance or about who got invited to the PEN convention in Italy. Now she claims such conversation bores her, that she prefers the company of “regular people,” that literary types make her nervous and uneasy. “Like, I admire Saul Bellow,” she says, “but what the hell am I going to sit around talking to him about?”
She has few connections to other writers, in literary terms or otherwise. “She's disliked,” one New York editor says, “by anyone who feels they haven't gotten the attention they deserve and that Tama's getting more than she's entitled to.”
And there is another reason young authors dislike her. “Tama is the first Warhol writer,” Bret Easton Ellis says. “Her attitude about the literary establishment is very Warhol. People feel that that aesthetic shouldn't intrude on the so-called serious literary world.”
Other young writers feel that her work is not good and that their work is not being taken seriously because of her public behavior. Whenever Tama is talked about, Ellis says, “those ads always come up.”
The ads, for Amaretto and Rose's Lime Juice, first appeared in June 1987. The latter paid Tama, who wanted to buy an apartment, around $10,000 to stand on Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s desk while Annie Leibovitz took their picture.
“It sounded fun,” says Tama. “I mean, if a serious writer is supposed to be somebody who sits at home with little glasses, I mean forget it, I'll put on a tutu and go out to a nightclub. I mean, why can't I be a serious writer and still do the other stuff? It's like you're supposed to be one thing or the other, but you aren't supposed to mix them.”
Sometimes she says of other people's reaction to her, “But I don't care what they think. Why should I? Who are they? Are they my friends?”
At other times she says, “The truth is, they're just jealous of me. Now, why that should be I don't know. I'm just as miserable as the next person.”
And there are times when she says, “Maybe I did care what they thought in the beginning. But it seems as if the less you care the easier it is.”
Ellis believes that at this point, if Tama doesn't care it's just as well. “Those people,” he says, “don't want her now.”
I LIKE GUM VERY MUCH
And so it is an isolated Tama who signs books, her hair, as usual, in her face, her jaws, as usual, worrying a hunk of Care Free gum.
A short young man walks up to her table. He wears jeans and a black Members Only jacket. He has flat, unhappy eyes. He tells Tama that he wishes he, too, were a famous writer. “But I don't have the motivation. I've been co-managing a soul group, but I work in retail.” He places a crumpled brown paper bag in front of her. Tama opens it. It contains dozens of little packages of Chiclets, two to a box. “They aren't going to explode or something, are they?” asks Tama. He shakes his head. “I'll eat one if you want,” she says. “I like gum very much.”
The young man has watched Tama from a distance in the two years since she became a public figure. In October he placed an ad in The Village Voice that read: “I'd like to meet you.” “But I didn't put a box number on it,” he says, “so I didn't get an answer.” Now he gives Tama his card. He asks her how her movie is going. Tama tells him what she has told everyone all evening. “I don't know what I'll do,” she says, “when it's done.”
THE BEST WEEK OF MY LIFE
Every night, Tama goes to see the dailies. One night, Sam [not his real name], the actor she thinks is cute but trouble, asks her to have a drink with him and some of the other guys. The next night the two of them go off together for a drink at Cafe Luxembourg.
In the next week, they attend a party at M.K. for Nick Rhodes and a birthday party at M.K. for Elizabeth Ray, whom Tama identifies as “this woman from like a Washington scandal.”
They spend a weekend at the house in Quiogue that Tama shares with Paige; they have a barbecue with a few other people in Tama's garden. They also have several discussions about where they will live once Tama sells her place in New York and Sam sells his house in Los Angeles and they move in together. By the end of the week, Tama says she can feel “the edges of my personality dissolving.” To spend more time with Sam, she abandons her usual routine of writing five pages a day of a new novel.
“This was the best week of my life,” she says. “One goddamn rare moment. I know it won't last. The movie will end. The guy may not be interested in me. The book I'm working on may be a piece of garbage I have to throw away. But I never had everything before. This week I have everything. It's scary. Andy used to say that thing about the fifteen minutes of fame. If you get fifteen minutes of happiness that's the big deal. And this is my fifteen minutes.”
YOU KNOW, LOVE
The night after the movie finishes shooting, there is a wrap party for the cast and crew. The party is on a boat that sails from a yacht club on the West Side and goes up and down the Hudson. Tama arrives in a red Chinese sheath she bought in Chinatown for forty dollars and had shortened into a minidress. “Everything was set,” she says, “for like nostalgia and sentiment.”
It turns out that Sam is in a terrible mood. Tama follows him around the boat asking, “What's the matter?” He doesn't answer. She keeps asking. He won't tell her. She asks again. He disappears. Tama goes around the boat asking other people if they've seen him. Then she sits down at a table and cries.
After the boat docks, some members of the cast and crew invite her to a club. She goes home to wait by the phone. At 2:00 A.M. she gives up, walks over to the Cafe Luxembourg, has a drink, and tells her troubles to the maître d'. He is very sympathetic. He saw Sam when they came in together on their first date the week before. He thought Sam was very handsome.
Sam calls in the morning. “It was like a once-in-a-lifetime evening,” she tells him, “and you ruined it for me.” He apologizes. Tama has never had a man apologize to her before. She had planned never to see him again. Now, in a quandary, she sounds like a character in one of her stories.
“Every time you get a success,” she says, “if you're with a guy they can't take it, they find a way to fuck it up for you. Time after time after time. And when I've been alone it's just not the same fun as when you can share it with somebody. I mean, what's the use about getting a big prize or a big reading or a big celebration when you don't have somebody to share it with? You know, you're walking around with some other element that's missing, which is, you know, love. So you can have your big prize but you're alone and when you're with somebody they're going to wreck it for you. That's the only way it's been with me.”
“But God help you if they ever have a big award or a prize if you behave like that, believe me there's somebody who's younger, who's pretty, who's not threatening, and they'll be with her in one minute, the turn-around time is so short for these guys. I mean, I sit around here feeling blue for a long time. A year. I mean, I don't know how long it takes me to get over it.”
“And, okay, you say to yourself, I don't want to have low self-esteem. I'm not ever going to be the richest, the youngest, the prettiest thing, but I'll make myself into an interesting person with an interesting life and all it adds up to is they're so threatened by you that they end up with the salesgirl from, you know, Woolworth's, or a person who's weeping all the time and maybe she's going to go to law school and maybe she's going to go to medical school and maybe she's going to be an actress and maybe she doesn't really know what she's going to do but can you loan her $200 she's getting evicted from her apartment. That's the one they go off with.”
“I just can't seem to … I don't know. I don't want to be alone and I can't be putting up with that crap all the time. I see very strong women and they manage to somehow manipulate the guy and keep him in line and he behaves himself. I don't have that in me. I'm too busy just watching them in action and I forget that I'm supposed to say—whatever you're supposed to say to train somebody. I don't know how to train somebody.”
IT'S PROBABLY NOT GOING TO WORK OUT
A week after the wrap party, Tama goes downtown to what was once the production office for Slaves of New York. The desks are empty. The bulletin boards are bare. Tama is here to pick up a painting of a spinach can that was used in the movie.
She and Sam spent the weekend together before he went back to L.A. Now she misses him and thinks maybe it would have been easier if she hadn't seen him again.
It turns out there's a woman living in his house, a legal secretary. Tama isn't sure if she's a tenant or a girlfriend. Last night he called and she suggested that he come to New York and move into her apartment.
“And he goes, ‘I can't because my furniture would get scratched if there were tenants in here and I can't let that happen.’”
“I mean, I want somebody who's so crazy about me they can't live without me. If they don't want to come live with me because their furniture might get scratched, it's probably not going to work out.”
There are a few people in one of the offices. Someone tells her that the painting was delivered to her apartment earlier in the day. With nothing left to do, she says goodbye.
“These people work on movies all the time,” she says as she walks down the hall, “so they're used to this intense coming together and then now we can get rid of each other and we'll go on to our next experience. But I'm not going to have that.” She steps into the elevator. “I wouldn't have come back down here,” she says, “if it weren't for the painting.”
When Tama gets home she finds the painting waiting for her and she finds a message on her answering machine. “I'm calling to ask,” a male voice says, “if the Marvel comic was delivered.” The little smile comes over her face. She rushes to the mail-box. It isn't there. She calls the man back. He tells her there's been a mistake, they'll send it first thing the next morning. The prospect of seeing it cheers her. Real life is hard, but it's fun to be a cartoon.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 295
SOURCE: A review of The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group, in Wall Street Journal, Vol. 220, October 19, 1992, p. A12.
[In the following brief excerpt, Salamon praises portions of The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group for its wit and intelligence.]
Tama Janowitz has solved the casting problem for her latest novel, The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group. She has written and directed a film version, conceived as a promotional gimmick.
Without having seen the film but having read the book, I strongly recommend the film. It's only 40 seconds long, an appropriate amount of time to spend with Ms. Janowitz's ruminations about her heroine's periods, her electrolysis, her hair and—I'm not kidding—ethics and morality in the late 20th century.
This time Ms. Janowitz's main character is a charmless creature named Pamela, who finds salvation for her dreary existence by taking unofficial custody of a young boy and taking him on the road. For Pamela and Ms. Janowitz life is one absurdist joke after another, strung together by the author's philosophizing.
For instance: “To find a head in the road might be a quirk of fate, but to find a head in the road and then to stumble upon the scene of one's father and stepmother's demise—obviously some larger psychosis or neurosis is involved. But hey, so what? I mean, who the hell actually cares? Life is short and psychoanalysis is long. In the end the only cure is death. In the meantime, as my mother always told me, the main point of existence was to have fun and grow as a human being.”
With Ms. Janowitz, insipid memories are always being sparked by unbelievable events. Yet here and there some real intelligence and wit emerge. So one suspects it's deliberate. She wants to be the Proust for pinheads.
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SOURCE: “Eight Million Characters in Search of an Author,” in Spectator, November 14, 1992, pp. 39-40.
[In the following review, Shone contemplates the humorous aspects of Janowitz's style.]
Eighties junk fiction is showing its paunch. ‘The ancient tallow of fast food’ hangs around Tama Janowitz's new novel [The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group]. The most frequently used adjective in the book? Greasy. The pizza her heroine eats at the start: ‘A spot of grease glistened in the centre’. The lamb chops she remembers eating as a child: ‘greasy, gristly’. The hamburger on page 72: ‘greasy’. The hair of the schmuck on page 205: ‘filthy, greasy, unwashed’. Even the trees on the sidewalk have ‘greasy leaves’.
A male writer might at this point have attempted to extrapolate from the grunge some general theory of urban decrepitude (think of the work to which mucus is put by Martin Amis, or the existential mileage Easton Ellis gets out of human innards). Janowitz's pleasant 300-page gossip is blissfully free of such vanities. ‘Yeeauuck’ would seem to be the sum of its satirical take on the world, and much the better it is for it too.
Pamela Trowell is a typical Janowitz creation: a low-rent bundle of bangles and bravado, discount-chic and urban neuroses, eking out an existence somewhere near the bottom of the fashion chain—receiving last year's hand-me-downs from her boss's wife—and living in a flat which, when on the one occasion it was burgled, actually got tidier. What's more, there's a rather ominous yellow slime on her bathroom floor.
It is one of many such accretions in the book—globules, gelatin, goo, gel, globs, gloop, glue, gunk, and, of course, grease abound, and that's just the Gs—all of which seem to lead like slug trails back to the countless men who line up so obediently for Janowitz's character assassinations: ‘Bronc’ Newman, art director of the magazine where Pamela works, who takes her to a peep show to see a disappointing bout of human/pig sex; a cabbie who prostrates himself at her feet in order to lick them; her craven boss, whose wife only likes to have sex with a paper bag over her head, and who wants a go at being dominated himself; and sex pest Alby, ‘my own personal lunatic,’ who trails Pamela, begging hand jobs under café tables.
Only Abdhul, a young street waif of unknown age and parentage who tags her home one night from a pizza parlour and whom she subsequently takes under her wing, offers any respite from the spinelessness. The sex pests pile up. Pamela gets sacked from the office. The bathroom stain gets larger. And so it is with Abdhul that Pamela finds herself fleeing New York to her father's country retreat, gathering with her as she goes an affenpinscher puppy, a frog, and a human head.
That the reader is happy to tag along with such calculated absurdities is largely down to Janowitz's narrative tone. Like some Barbie doll gone to seed, Pamela's schtick is engagingly dippy. Getting the sack she finds time for a schpiel about testicles and figs, while nothing seems to shake her core belief that having your leg mounted by a dog is the funniest thing that can happen to a girl, while being stuck in a loo without any loo paper the most nightmarish.
Janowitz's humour has that pleasingly raddled logic of a drunkenly told shaggy dog story, which gives you reservations about recommending it. The eccentricities can, for instance, become over-rehearsed, and over-reliant on sitcom-style résumés like:
I've lost my job and I'm kidnapping a child to go and find out if my father and his wife are dead or alive, and you're wondering what to serve at a dinner party?
The lathering of zaniness also tends to obliterate the difference between her characters. Which Marshall scholar has a gay brother and an insane sister? Is it her father, the marijuana-smoking gynaecologist? Or was it her ex-friend Patty, the one who once went to a peep house with a tiny African transvestite, possibly a pygmy? Or is it just the woman who sells them the affenpinscher puppy, one of whose husbands was a Grand Prix racing driver? These mini-histories float curiously free of the characters to whom they are attached, and, since their relevance is discrete and not cumulative, don't add much to the novel's overall structure.
‘There are eight million stories in the naked city’ maintained the opening credits of the TV show, ‘and this is one of them.’ Janowitz, however, wants to tell them all, and all at once. Having read the result, her collection of eccentrics might have been much happier if released into their natural environment, a collection of short stories. Which isn't to say that even as they are, they are not at times both funny and engaging.
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SOURCE: “Library of the Ultravixens: The Lost Phallus—Where did I Put It?—in the works of Tama Janowitz, Mary Gaitskill, and Catherine Texier,” in Shopping in Space, edited by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney, Atlantic Monthly Press and Serpent's Tail, 1992, pp. 142-93.
[In the following essay, Young discusses Janowitz's oeuvre within the framework of postmodern feminist theory.]
“Slipping through the stitch of virtue, Into crime”
(Djuna Barnes, The Book of Repulsive Women)*
I. BOHEMIANS AND BAD GIRLS
It is the 1950s and our heroine is sitting in the kitchen. Outside, a bomb-shelter broods in the backyard. She is watching her mother who, in a flowered pinny and turban is doing a hundred things at once: mixing the Bisto gravy, worming the cat, sudsing the smalls, dashing away with a smoothing iron, all because she's W.O.M.A.N. Her daughter's never going to grow up like that … In a trice she's become a pouting, blonde dolly-bird in a crochet mini-dress, bowling down the King's Road in a pink sports car. Next, she's in a kitchen, hopelessly stirring mung beans in some rustic commune, bra-less and unencumbered in trailing cheese-cloth. Another click and she's up at the barricades screaming for abortion on demand, wages for housework and lesbian rights. This year she's wearing dungarees and leather and has a crewcut. Suddenly she's gone again. She re-appears striding on impossible stilettos through a hushed, open-plan office. Her make-up is discreet, her hair streaked, her suit expensive; she exudes power. She has terrific legs. Then she's back in a kitchen again, as big as a loft. It is a loft. She clutches a winsome child dressed in overly interesting jeans and she's doing a hundred things at once. She looks confused. We've come a long way haven't we, baby? And it's all been so quick. All these common, iconic, representations of women with all the pressures they embody, can have flashed past our heroine before she has even reached middle age. They are indicative of the cultural schizophrenia that has engulfed women as they try to appease a contradictory pantheon of contemporary imperatives. The impossibility of internalizing such seismic social change within a short period has led to a cluster of warring responses within literature, feminism and feminist literary theory.
The books discussed in this chapter were all published during the 1980s. To a very large extent, they ignore the feminist movement, at least in any overt way. It became fashionable at this time to, post-haste, proclaim post-feminism, as if troublesome and cataclysmic social change had been assimilated as smoothly as Jello. The success of writers such as Tama Janowitz and Mary Gaitskill, whose fiction certainly avoided any strident feminism, seemed to confirm the emergence of a more sophisticated (more rational? better-tempered?) type of woman whose books would mercifully appeal to all readers, regardless of gender.
Such easy assessments avoided consideration of a number of issues essential to any analysis of the novels, the most obvious being that none of these books could have been written without the experience of feminism and the freedoms, particularly sexual freedoms, that such experience had granted the authors. There was no denying that these new texts resembled not at all the large number of overtly feminist Anglo-American novels whose content was already so predictable as to invite parody. We've all read them: books that pullulate with fluids, books brimming with childbirth and menarche, abortion and menopause. These were books that tried to break the silence and cram centuries of female experience into a few short years of writing, books whose plots frequently celebrated the discovery of lesbian love and lore and that had awful titles like Women Are Bloody Wonderful. A few years of this and nobody wanted to pick up a “feminist” novel, let alone write one.
The reasons for so many of these books being vaguely disappointing lay deep within the pragmatic, utilitarian politics of the Anglo-American feminists. England, in particular, with its empirical traditions, had a profound, traditional mistrust of theory and abstract thought which English feminists unwittingly perpetuated without seeing it for what it was—one of the classist aspects of the English patriarchy dedicated to impeding thinking and education in society at large. French feminists, versed in the tradition of European thought, were much more open to theory. During the first decade of post-war feminism they were deeply influenced by Jacques Lacan's thinking on psychoanalysis and his belief that the moment of Oedipal crisis and repression of desire for the mother is synonymous with our acquisition of language and entry into the Symbolic Order, our acceptance of the Law of the Father.
Many French feminists became concerned with what they termed “l'écriture féminine.” This aligned an attempt to locate within literature the unconscious, repressed desires of the pre-Oedipal period along with the Deconstructionist theories of Jacques Derrida and their emphasis on the instability of meaning in language. French philosopher Julia Kristeva had seen conventional social meaning as encoded in language to be the underlying structure supporting all our social and cultural institutions. She had suggested that the fragmentation of meaning in the pre-modernist work of Lautréamont, Mallarmé and other Symbolists posed a revolutionary challenge to the social order by virtue of its delineation of the immensely powerful and arbitrary rhythms of the unconscious. Kristeva hoped that women writers would be able to dislocate language and patriarchal conventions by a similar use of the “spasmodic force” of the unconscious, further powered by their close gender identification with the powerful, pre-literate pre-Oedipal mother-figure. It was indeed from this area that the most influential and avowedly feminist literature emerged, primarily in the work of Monique Witting and Hélène Cixous. One could not hope to re-create in textual form what Lacan called the “Imaginary”, the infant period when there is no perceived separation from the mother; this being pre-Oedipal, pre-linguistic, any attempt to do so would result in psychotic gibberish. However in l'écriture féminine, one could, as Cixous puts it “work on the difference”,1 that is strive to undermine the dominant phallocentric logic of language, oppose the “binary oppositions” between the masculine and the feminine that exist in language and stress an open-ended textuality that would resist “closure” or resolution. Cixous was much influenced by the work of Derrida who maintains that meaning can only be located through the “free play of the signifier”, or rather that meaning is always potential, always deferred as we pass from signifier to signifier in language without there being the possibility of a “transcendental signified”, an ending or closure. There are few parallels with these writings and theories amongst English feminist novelists apart from in the work of Nicole Ward Jouve, herself French by birth, and Christine Brooke-Rose.
L'écriture féminine resists biologism—that is the Anglo-American feminist emphasis on women as real, biological entities who can only hope to change their status by opposing patriarchy in all its historical and political manifestations. Instead, the French theorists foreground language to the point of gender-fluidity, by stressing the textuality of sex and thus not excluding certain male texts from the “féminine.” Julia Kristeva asserts that it is not biological difference that determines feminist potential but ourselves as “subject in process”: “our identities in life are constantly brought into question, brought to trial, over-ruled.”2 Identity itself is endlessly unstable, endlessly open to change. Kristeva has attempted to align feminism and the avant-garde in an androgynous challenge to the very discourses that make such positions possible. Her project is one of subversion from within, re-defining “différence” (which in French denotes both difference and deferral), within the multiplicity and heterogeneity of textuality itself. She feels that the woman and the artist, the feminist and the avant-garde can all converge and dissolve in a deviance that is writing. They would seek to trangress the boundaries of which they speak and in doing so expose those boundaries for what they are—the product of phallocentric discourse and of women's relation to patriarchal culture. Incidentally anarchic, they would ceaselessly deconstruct the discourse they work within and constantly strive to write what cannot be written. Many of these theories are somewhat utopian and often deeply irritating to Anglo-American feminists who cannot see much gender fluidity or polymorphous perversity down the supermarket. Even the French theorists themselves were unable to agree on multiple points of psycho-analysis, class and race privilege, literary representation and the patriarchal implications of theory itself.
The schism between the pragmatic “biologist” politics of Anglo-American feminisms and the language theory of the French groups is further complicated by the “crisis of legitimation”, in Jean-François Lyotard's phrase, within post-modernism itself; the erosion of the Symbolic Order and a loss of faith generally, in what Lacan calls the Law of the Father. The various strands within feminism—the theoretical and the fictional, the political and the linguistic—can be seen as mirroring the cultural schizophrenia that has engulfed us. But for the woman writer—imprisoned of necessity within her language—the act of demanding access to discourse still means a submission to the phallocentrist masculine that constitutes the language of the Symbolic Order. On the other hand, to refuse discourse, fictional or otherwise, merely re-inscribes women as the signifiers of mystery, silent, “unspoken.” How to work within male discourse while defying it? How to stand outside its voices without assuming the role of female “essence”? For the woman writer there are a multiplicity of problems within these trajectories.
The novels in question, those of Tama Janowitz, Mary Gaitskill and Catherine Texier are neither straightforwardly feminist and celebratory of the women's movement nor do they reflect French literary theory. They do not “work on the difference”; they make little attempt to undermine phallocentrism, nor do they show any profound commitment towards defusing the bottom-line binary oppositions of male/female within language. They are neither literary experimentations that aim towards an open-ended non-oppositional textuality nor feminisms presented within “ordinary” narrative forms. Are they “post-feminist”, post-feminism being the convenient mirage that was foisted upon us during the eighties, along with another chimera, that shy woodland creature, the New Man? Feminism had all been so worthy, so earnest. Wasn't it a mite passé? Human nature doesn't change much, does it? This impulse to turn down the bellowing biologism and re-appear in bustiers and fish-net stockings was more than understandable but reductive in literary terms for women writers. Feminism did exist. Language theory had developed and a disinclination to engage with either left these American novelists in a curious limbo where most of their work, however sensitive and intelligent, could not really evolve from being entertainments into the disruptive vitalities of art.
The novels in question actually display many of the impulses charted by feminist theory: the urge towards androgyny wherein women reject the dichotomies between masculine and feminine as being, in Kristeva's term, purely “metaphysical”; the desire for union with the Lost Mother of Oedipal theory. Desire is encoded within language and the authoritative act of writing, the “claiming of space” is always expressive of powerful, erotic impulses. If desire and language are synonymous, writing is symptomatic of desire that doubles back and underwrites or impersonates itself and is then doubly emphasized within the impulsive “ejaculations” of creative text. Women writers incurious about the phallocentrism of the language they assume will tend to re-enact, in unconscious form, the moment of their entry into desire and language at the Oedipal crux, the point at which they locate their phallic lack. In these novels we see, like shadows beyond the text, all the elements of the original drama. (“Doesn't every narrative lead back to Oedipus?” writes Roland Barthes. “Isn't story-telling always a way of searching for one's origin, speaking one's conflicts with the Law, entering into the dialectic of tenderness and hatred?”)3 We see the loss of the phallus, the emergence of desire, the search for the Other, the seductive girl-child, the many Fathers—the Good, the Bad and the Indifferent—and the development of their role as love-object. We note the longing to recreate symbiotic union with the pre-Oedipal Mother, that monstrous, magical figure who contains both Masculine and Feminine; we observe the wounds of the castration complex. Although basic Freudian theory has been spectacularly developed and challenged, notably by Lacan and Luce Irigaray, nevertheless much feminist textual theory is still concerned with the way in which conventional Freudian theory writes out women, condemns them to absence, to being deviations from the male norm, to be forever defined in negative terms as forms of nothingness or no-importance; passive as opposed to the male active, dark as opposed to light, fluidic, emotional, mysterious—emblematic of the unconscious. Thus, in claiming language the woman writer assumes a formidable task and must literally write herself into being.
The chaoticism of women's literature after feminism can be further explained by the urge, the desperate need to “catch up” in a pitifully short time. While much hitherto neglected women's writing from the past was excavated and published, contemporary women novelists had to contend simultaneously with the past and the present. They had to deal with the weight of literary history, they had to re-assess their own, frequently male, literary influences and they had to grapple with all the cultural imperatives of postmodern society. They had to try and form both new identities and new literatures in the teeth of great blasts of feminist theory. It was a formidable task and thus hardly surprising that instant, skimpy “traditions” emerged.
One of these was the American “Bad Girl” writer. These were writers who seemed to have taken every cliché about American womanhood from a century of fiction—they would be fiery, independent, free-spirited, uninhibited—and forced them juicily through the mill of post-war sexual liberation to produce a literary Cosmo girl. The original was probably Erica Jong with Fear of Flying, swiftly joined by Lisa Alther and Kinflicks.4 In their work such writers focused on the women who had opened their hearts and legs to the counter-culture in the sixties, and trilled on through feminism and all varieties of sexual experimentation into burgeoning eighties privilege and success. They were bountiful, orgasmic, lip-glossed Amazons. The heroine of a late Jong novel, Any Woman's Blues, is the neo-autobiographical figure of Isadora Wing, ragingly concupiscent, complete with chic divorce, goy toy-boy and designer daughter. Jong still wrote like a Hall-mark card. Lisa Alther's heroine in a late book, Bedrock, cloyingly confides that, “Hormones had always been her drug of choice.”5 These women gave the impression that nothing would ever stop their fictional heroines; they would soon be picking out low-cut winding sheets and stretching mottled arms from the grave for one last grab of cock. They would presumably, in Joe Orton's phrase, be buried in a “Y-shaped coffin.”6 These writers were selling sex. The books had nothing to do with feminism and were, in fact, positively degrading to women. They promoted a rampant sexual consumerism, set impossible standards of wealth and allure and re-inforced the sexist image of women as hormonal harpies who could never drag their thoughts above the pelvis.
It has to be admitted that the writers under consideration, Tama Janowitz, Mary Gaitskill and Catherine Texier, all belong to this Bad Girl “tradition.” They may have weighed in with a chic downtown version and a nihilistic punk allure but the books are still lewd, lustful and explicit, with a genteel veneer of high seriousness and, as such, comprise a publisher's wet dream. If, in addition, the writer presented an attractive package, was youngish, personable and gave good interview, the marketing machine went into overdrive. This contains a sinister implication for women writers who do not conform to this marketing ideal and may consequently be doomed to media neglect. The writers under consideration here are all attractive women and the considerable material and status awards of their choosing to write almost exclusively about sex has to be taken into consideration. Is such writing little more than an astute career move? This is the “Madonna” debate. Can women criticize other women who use their sexuality in an autonomous fashion to become rich and powerful? Surely their rise is a triumph of feminism? Or do they merely perpetuate degrading sexist stereotypes?
Some women now consider that, during the eighties, far from being able to settle permanently into the workplace and consolidate the advances of feminism, women were being subtly undermined by media campaigns that eroded their frail confidence. Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women considers that neurosis-inducing, glossy chat-show glop about New Men, co-dependency, baby-hunger and Women Who Love Too Much was deliberately intended to destabilize the new-found strength of the single, independent, self-determined woman. But were women really so fragile that they fell into a swoon of anxiety over nonsensical psychobabble? Certainly, during the eighties all types of pre-feminist behaviour from flirting to falsies were once again legitimized and even fashionable. In the eighties, sisterhood was Doubtful, Bitchiness was back. It is interesting to observe however that while the novels in question may avoid straight down-the-line feminism, neither do they tend towards any of the other eighties feminine extremes of power-shopping, ruthless ambition and bitchy back-bite. They all foreground friendship between women and are in general very warm and loving towards their own sex. It seems as though the female character who appears most frequently in these fictions—the bohemian artist and down-town clubber—was totally absent both from the dour-dressing Dworkin dyke set or the power-dressing of the uptown rich bitch. And indeed was it not always so? One of the most notable absences in literature was precisely that of the bohemian woman artist and the work of Mary Gaitskill in particular went a long way towards re-(ad)dressing this issue.
Tama Janowitz was the first of the “New Wave” women writers to impinge on British consciousness. Here in England we were shielded from the worst of the media circus that surrounded her burgeoning career but we got the message. She was hip, sophisticated. She knew Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat! She looked great with her black, tangled, just-risen-from-a love-nest mane of hair, carmine pout and tight-clinched waist. This was no drab, mouthy dyke who was going to go all dismal and angry on talk shows. Janowitz was Lifestyle incarnate—you could be cute and intellectual and celebrated and rich all at once and still have credibility. What more could any woman ever want? In the face of all this the quality of her writing seemed hardly to count. In England, Slaves of New York was the first of her books to be published and sold well although critics tended to dismiss it as light-weight trendy New York pap. In fact Janowitz was a serious, thoughtful writer who didn't really deserve much of the image-linked nonsense that surrounded her and precluded her books being read with any real care. However, her first three novels together comprise something of a cautionary tale in terms of postmodern literature.
American Dad, published originally in 1981, was a fairly traditional first novel, although instantly hailed by reviewers as being “new-wave” and “postmodern.” It is obviously the work of a careful, considered young writer with a thorough grounding in literature. It is a traditional coming-of-age novel concerning the transformation of character, a Bildungsroman, and chiefly remarkable for Janowitz's choice of a male narrator and protagonist. It is relatively rare for a woman writer to adopt the male voice and particularly so at the time this novel was written when there was so much emphasis on the nature of women's experience. In assuming literary discourse at all women become, in theoretical terms, bisexual and it is rare for them to go further and claim the male voice in its entirety. (Kathy Acker is a notable exception.) Janowitz does not use the male persona here to deliver any sarcastic feminist critique of men. Her portrayal of Earl Przepasnick is a gentle and sympathetic one as if she had merely transposed many of her own adolescent memories—as one does in a first novel—into a male body without any particular reflection on the obsession with gender difference that had seized the rest of the Western world. This apparent reluctance to emphasize gender nevertheless comprises a statement of its own. It frees Janowitz from any of the constraints of representing a world newly imbued with feminism which would have been unavoidable with a female narrator. At the same time it allows her to usurp a very male tradition of American fiction—the sprawling Look Homeward Angel summation of youth and adolescence, the small-town look at life in a big country—and by very dint of her, as author, being female, to turn it subtly to her own ends. In a period when, despite all the demands for equality, the two sexes seemed more violently at odds that they had ever been, Janowitz's choice of narrator is brave and seems like a quiet plea for a more humanist, less divisive socio-sexual agenda.
American Dad is a dense and detailed book, written in the safe past tense of childhood. It opens climactically with a murder, a maiming and the memory of a divorce, although these are all swiftly revealed to be incidents which came about arbitrarily, or accidentally. They foreground the thematic thrust of the book which is a description of the lives of children whose parents were caught up in the turbulent cross-currents of the sixties. Such parents, vulnerable and more like children themselves, were unable to bequeath to their offspring the illusions of stability and order that had sustained earlier generations. Earl makes this clear when he says: “He was my father. He should grow up and act like one.”7 The lives of such parents swirled with chaos, divorce, extra-marital partnerships and terrible uncertainties. This enables Janowitz to implicitly deconstruct the traditional coming-of-age novel, which achieves resolution when the hero is able to reach a maturity which makes peace with, and approximates to, the values of the parental generation as in, for example The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. For the children in American Dad, however, the question is whether they will be able to survive at all or reach maturity in anything other than a psychologically fragmented state. In this respect they are more akin to Joel in Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms, who had no parents at all and was thus completely at the mercy of random influences. This is the central paradox of American Dad; the parents are very much present, very much loved but at the same time they are absent in the sense of being able to pass on coherent values to their offspring. Janowitz proves unable to investigate fully all the implications of this scenario; once Earl reaches adolescence she becomes more interested in detailing the lurid surfaces of contemporary society in the manner typical of her later work and the book loses its original impetus.
The first part of the book describes the childhood of Earl and Bobo Przepasnick after their parents, Robert and Mavis, decide to get a divorce. Robert is a sensual, bearded dope-smoking psychiatrist who occupies a curiously interstitial point in American history; his instincts are those of a backwoodsman, a frontiersman. He learns “to live off the land, fry day-lily bulbs and blossoms, spear frogs, brew tea from sassafras leaves.”8 At the same time these traditional American urges, far from dating him, unite him with the sixties trends towards self-sufficiency and a rejection of overt consumerism. Earl calls him “Paul Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, Hunter S. Thompson rolled into one”, further clarifying the point.9 In many respects he is a milder version of the demented father in Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, who implodes under the contradictions of past and present American realities. Robert similarly claims to be “a man of the future—higher on the evolutionary scale than the rest of society.”10 “It's going to take a while for the rest of mankind to catch up with him,” says his son.11 The mother, Mavis, is eccentric, confused and pitiable. A talented poet, she is constantly defeated by the exigencies of the world. It is clear that both parents have been wrecked on the tides of time; their perception embodies an older world whilst their daily lives are lived amongst the slippages of the new one.
By the time Earl is twelve, the parents are divorced and he has met other young casualties of the divorce wars—sex-crazed six-year-olds, children stoned on LSD or given hash brownies to calm them.12 As Earl and Bobo get older, Earl comes to understand that the divorce was “the end of Bobo.” Before it, Earl says, Bobo was “a fine person, a thoughtful person, but he was a sane person.” The divorce “shocked him into a kind of reality that he might not otherwise have experienced. It stopped him completely from suffering an artistic sensibility, it prevented him from being a weirdo of any sort. He was a thoroughly American boy.”13 The inference is that the cataclysmic trauma of divorce or some similar fragmentation of past tradition is now necessary if children are to be “normal” and able to cope with present-day reality—not that this normality, in Earl's view, is to be recommended: it is the opposite of “sane.” This establishes a complex interplay of binary oppositions, between the “artistic sensibility” and “normality” in both the old and new worlds. The “All-American” sensibility, once the “natural” product of security and tradition and an edenic past, has always been despised by the aesthetic “artistic” sensibility. Nowadays however, it takes a wrenching “unnatural” event to produce that “All-American”, seemingly natural “normality.” The divorce, Earl concludes was “probably the best thing that could have happened” to Bobo. He “became normal.”14
The first part of American Dad is a mature work with its reflections on time, schism and the family. What is interesting about the book and, indeed, about Janowitz's work in general is the way in which, as Earl grows up and into the “present” and she concentrates increasingly on this “present” in this and later work, the whole tenor of the writing becomes increasingly “immature” as if traditional maturity, responsibility and understanding were qualities quite useless in apprehending contemporary reality. By the time Janowitz comes face to face with her self and her own milieu in A Cannibal in Manhattan her work is positively infantile in its short-sightedness and self-gratification. This, while not, I think, wholly deliberate underlines truisms about the infantilization of the individual in consumer society and the cravings for instant gratification. These lie in such opposition to the very act of writing which by its nature constantly defers meaning as well as deferring reward in a material sense that any attempt to combine the consumer ecstasy of the “endless present” in which we live with fictional form not only implodes “traditional” fiction but requires exceptional control of new forms if the writer is not to slip into a whining mimesis of the immature urges s/he portrays.
After Earl leaves his parental homes he finds it impossible to live up to the heroic image of his father he still retains. The rest of the book chronicles Earl's relationship with various girlfriends in college and abroad, relationships in which he takes a meek, supplicatory role entirely at odds with the images of men prevalent at the time as bullying sexist beasts. Janowitz finally collides with her future subject matter—the observation of strange urban tribes—when Earl meets an American “milky chocolate” model with “raspberry-coloured electrocuted hair” and blue lips.15 We are nearly in Slaves of New York country. Earl finally loses his virginity to this sweet-natured giantess with the room-temperature IQ. The novel rather desperately attempts a traditional ending when Earl achieves manhood by having a baby—called Robert—with another girlfriend, the aristocratic English Elmira. Earl's father is seriously wounded when chopping down trees, trees having been earlier represented in the book as an image of age, history and tradition. The wounding of the “King”, the Father, allows Earl to achieve adulthood and to make his peace with the elder Robert. Despite woundings, schisms, the chopping-down of the past, family tradition will struggle on in the form of Earl's new little family, a tradition that has been totally changed and yet, in its essential biological bondings, remains unchanging.
All that remains to be said of American Dad is that it performs textually and thematically in a traditional way while seeking out elements of the contemporaneous that co-exist uneasily with the Bildungsroman tradition. Janowitz is in transition between the past and the present in fiction as she writes the book. Janowitz also demonstrates a strong interest in anthropology, in cannibal tribes and in adopting anthropology to urban life, Earl speaks of his adventures as “sacred and religious rituals of the highest order … food for thought for anthropologists in every land and clime”16 and this interest in urban “tribes” informs Janowitz's subsequent work. Lastly American Dad is an exercise in double consciousness. As a male, Earl can engage in Oedipal struggle with his father and emerge victorious in the traditional way by begetting a son. However this psychic battlefield is subtly informed by Janowitz's understanding of men as being far more vulnerable and “feminine” than they might have appeared had the author been male.
Simultaneously, the act of projecting imaginatively into the male voice is bounded for the reader by the knowledge that the female author has, in life, no such solutions as are available to Earl within the Oedipal crisis. Ironically this triumphant engagement with Oedipality is only accessible to Janowitz through the adoption of a male narrator, a male persona. She is able to use fictional language as illusion to “masquerade” as a man and to cloak gender difference whilst, subliminally, as a woman she re-enacts her own Oedipal struggle by her emergence into “public” written text. The novel is both fluid and uncertain in its combination of traditional “male” and “female” qualities. It is simultaneously dense and tentative as the author attempts to resolve the double-consciousness or multiple voicing inherent in its creation.
Janowitz moved decisively into the postmodern with Slaves of New York. This was her most successful book and is comprised of a number of brief vignettes of downtown New York life. Many of these had already appeared in magazines including the New Yorker, Interview and Mississippi Review.
The vignettes in Slaves of New York often move into the present, or historic present tense so beloved of postmodern novelists. This has always served several functions. It denotes the “endless present” of consumer culture where linear time and appropriate cause and effect have been blasted away by drug use, chaos theory and media blitz. It mirrors the moral and intellectual flexibility required for survival in a multi-textured, frequently nonsensical and paradoxical environment. It also forces the readers to engage with the novelist's “now”, to involve them as closely with events as language will allow. In providing no past-tense “safe distance” it drags the reader into the literary equivalent of co-counselling.
Presentations of urban life at their most flat and affectless approach the imagistic condition of poetry or abstract art and are even more resistant to analysis and theory in that they are not founded in emotion. Janowitz is in general too quirky and critical to achieve this blandness but despite this, and despite considerable literary ingenuity, it becomes increasingly clear that she is not always wholly in control of her material.
For example, the first piece in the book, entitled “Modern Saint 271,” describes the experiences of a prostitute. The contemporary call-girl is a figure that appears not only in Janowitz's work but also in that of Gaitskill and Texier and at first their intentions seem clear. As women writing about these all-too familiar male fantasy figures, they demystify and clarify them, banishing forever any connotations of seamy, exotic sleaze and ludicrous tart-with-a-heart/madonna-whore projections and replacing them with human beings. (One cannot but recall Alice Munro's complaint about “the figure of an idiotic, saintly whore”: “Men who made books and movies seemed to have a fondness for this figure, though Rose noticed they would clean her up. They cheated, she thought …”17 Actually, in a different way Janowitz, Gaitskill and Texier “clean her up” too by substituting the nice middle-class girl with intellectual interests, paying her way through college perhaps. Although this incarnation is often far closer to contemporary reality than to the numberless sentimental male imaginings, it is still of course approximate. However streetwise the New York writers are, they all remain nice, educated middle-class kids—I mean, they're not Iceberg Slim, the street-smart black author of the classic memoir Pimp. Still Janowitz's portrayal of a prostitute's life does not seek to shield the reader. Her description of the penises encountered by her call-girl is right on the ball, so to speak. “Some blue-veined and reeking of Stilton, some miserly. Some crabbed, enchanted, dusted with pearls …”18 This accentuates the tone of the piece which hovers between a repulsive, squalid factuality and a gentle dreaminess, all qualities which are profoundly welded together in the personality of the prostitute, her life, past and present and her relationship with her pimp. This latter is notably tender and sensitive, banishing all clichés of pimpdom; the intellectual Bob “with his long, graceful hands, his silky mustache, his interesting theories of life and death”19 is sweetly ineffectual as a pimp although he sensibly comforts her with drugs. “He would softly tie up my arm and inject me with a little heroin.”20 The tender cadences of such sentences which seem to shed soft cloudy halo-lights on the two characters fit admirably with Janowitz's designation of the prostitute as a “modern saint”, a phrase which is only barely ironic. This gentleness also foregrounds the girl's own quasi-religious belief that she “was like a social worker for lepers” and that “As in the convent, life is not easy.”21 This holiness, this saintliness, coupled with all the descriptions of the ugly litter that surrounds fiscal sex, raises the whole piece to the level of religious kitsch wherein the sublime must co-exist with mundane sentiment. As a complex evocation of an imaginative modern sexuality the piece destabilizes fixed notions surrounding sexuality, prostitution and religion whilst simultaneously undermining its own assertions with a gentle kitschy gloss. However, there is another more ominous textual reading which lies within the literary evocation of sex for sale. The author, by concentrating so blatantly on sex in the first story of the book, is herself offering sex for sale, in the book. As with the first sentence of Catherine Texier's Panic Blood and its insistence on “cunt” these writers are proferring sex, in some form, to the readers, sex which will “sell” the books. Doesn't it always? In this respect, and we must consider that they are using the language of the patriarchy, Texier's book “opens” with, or like, a “cunt” and Janowitz blends authorial voice with the voice of a prostitute, thus immediately “displaying” the text, in invitation, as sexual. This instant sexualization of the text presents the text itself as slut, to be “penetrated” by the reader. The very softness and gentleness of the text itself here, its “female” qualities render it all the more pleasurable as an erotic invitation and there is something questionable here in these authors' insistence on sexual matters. If, in Roland Barthes's analysis, all texts “flirt” with the reader, these precipitately embrace the readers and drag them into bed. No one could ever mistake Kathy Acker's sexual explicitness in language for a seductive invitation but Janowitz, Gaitskill and Texier are offering a very seductive, non-aggressive sexual enjoyment within the “body” of the text of young, beautiful, middle-class intellectuals/authors—or call-girls.
Slaves of New York takes us on a tour of New York City in the eighties, “dust and grit tossed feverishly in the massive canyons between the skyscrapers.”22 Everyone dreams of a better, more creative life. “All the waitresses I knew were really actresses, all the Xeroxers in the Xerox place were really novelists, all the receptionists were artists.”23 Although these vignettes can function as individual stories, many of the characters are linked from one to the other, comprising a sort of novella. There are other, separate pieces too.
In one, “You and the Boss,” Janowitz executes a clever pastiche of a style of star-crazed writing sometimes found in fanzines. I have a near identical piece—at least in style—written, in all seriousness, some twenty-odd years ago, by a girl who spent a day with Jim Morrison. Janowitz uses the form to rubbish both the “legend” of a pop star, in this case Bruce Springsteen, and the clone-like qualities of a star's girlfriends. It is very funny. In “real life” of course, Bruce proves to be “larger than life.” In fact, “Bruce is the size of a monster … his body might take up an entire billboard.” Bruce eats “a dozen eggs, meatballs, spaghetti and pizza” for breakfast (all solid blue-collar food) and, worst of all, “He sings while he eats.”24 His home is furnished with the common touch—terminal tack—and so on. In another piece, “Engagements,” Janowitz takes a clever swipe at post-structuralist critical discourse. Her heroine attends a Women's Studies Course at Yale but when she re-reads her notes which include the line “A gendered identity 99٪ of the time is built onto a person who has a sex”, they sound to her “as if they had been written in a foreign language.”25 She gives some more examples, which haven't quite degenerated into such gibberish and decides that this language “gracefully circled a subject without ever landing to make a point”,26 which is fair enough I suppose. As this also makes the point that Janowitz herself is perfectly familiar with these terms one might be tempted to ask why she makes relatively little of them in her writing and to consider the fact that were she more feminist/more experimental in language she would certainly not have been so successful—or at least not so quickly or so dramatically. But something about Janowitz seems to convey a genuine sweetness and precludes sinister accusations of calculation.
Some of Janowitz's concerns in Slaves of New York are all too familiar from other New York novels; the surreal street-life, the traditional flash of Trash Aesthetic as she describes one heroine's fascination with those tasteless but irresistible offers one finds in junk magazines—“Pegasus pendant with genuine ruby and swirl of faux diamonds”!27—and inevitably that hideous eighties food obsession. This latter ranges from the parodic, as in Ellis's work (“eggplant-chocolate-chip icecream”) to the everyday middle-class New Yorker diet: “Cornish game hen with orange glaze, curried rice, asparagus … or fettucine Alfredo with aragula salad …”28 This is probably the worst aspect of New York novels of that period, trapping the English reader in a combination of Guardian Weekend and a Foodie convention.
There is also in Janowitz's fiction a subterranean feminist awareness, adroitly twisted to comic effect in the text: “You don't know why you spend half your life trying to scrub your body free from essential oils and the other half smearing stuff onto it.”29 She goes in for a rather endearing faux-naivety too, distancing herself further from her heroines; one of whom, contemplating a vast range of airplane food muses: “It must be difficult to raise the chickens, lettuce and so forth so far off the ground.”30
Overall the stories that describe a particular circle of art-world characters are probably the least effective; they have an unwitting, inbuilt paradox in that Janowitz cannot decide if these characters are lovable, madcap, zany kooks or thoroughly unpleasant and inadequate human beings. It was this particular indecision that doomed the Ismail Merchant/James Ivory film-of-the-book (although the clothes were good). Eleanor, the central figure, is the one most exempt from this troubling uncertainty. Although she is a loopy jewellery-maker who produces “shellacked sea-horses, plastic James Bond-doll earrings”,31 that kind of thing, she is both innocent, vulnerable and victimized. Janowitz probably means the others to embody a fine literary ambiguity but in this she is unsuccessful and merely returns the reader again and again to the central paradox of their unlikeability. Eleanor's lover, artist Stashua Stosz, is a disagreeable bully and another artist, Marley Mantello, purveyor of neo-classical themes—“The God of Baseball playing a game of billiards with Bacchus”32, for example—is a self-professed genius, and well-nigh unbearable. Art dealer Victor is not much better. Janowitz undoubtedly intends a satire on the art world and its self-serving lunacies. There is an artist “who paints traumatic situations”—a rape, a car accident—in a medium he “invented himself … ground bones and blood acquired from garbage pails outside the meat market.” Another “environmental” artist is “moving heaps of mud from one part of Montana to another” and yet another wants “to cover the Golden Gate Bridge in Band-Aids.”33 Janowitz's satiric intentions are severely undercut by her own obvious affection for and interest in contemporary art, a dichotomy that permeates the characters who are simultaneously, and impossibly, supposed to combine crass self-interest and blunted affect with finer feelings and profound sensitivities. Not that the two aspects are inimical in one personality, far from it, merely that Janowitz fails to animate the potential. Although she attempts to raise significant points, as when avid collector Chuck feeds the hungry Marley Mantello a humungous breakfast, a scenario that suggests correspondences between art, creativity, hunger and desire, she fails to develop them. Ultimately we have more shopping-list fiction—fashion, style, quirky sexual detail, consumer jokes—whose most profound statement seems to be that life doesn't live up to advertising. No one is demanding the improbable resolution or the metaphors of her first book but trivia, even if grounded in common emotional conflict, remains trivia.
Janowitz chose to further pursue the role of quasi-anthropologist to the urban nomad in Slaves of New York. For example, she writes of men: “When I went out with them it was only to study them further as if they were natural history museum exhibits.”34 In her subsequent book, A Cannibal in Manhattan, that particular approach is carried in a cutesy way to its logical extreme. The project must have seemed both ambitious and impeccably postmodern. A noble savage would be transported suddenly to New York City. Unencumbered by Western perceptions and preconceptions he would faithfully record the rites and rituals of this eccentric new culture. From within his innocent voice Janowitz would be able to satirically re-present the entire urban hive in all its cross-pollinated absurdities. Simultaneously she would test the boundaries of the novel itself by providing a photographic “record” of her hero's decline and fall. The reader, aware of the jokey nature of this photographic “documentation” wherein the author's friends impersonate the book's characters, would knowingly collude in the fictionalized artifice and double-bluff. All aspects of the book, from epigraph to index, would self-reflexively participate in this ironic game, questioning and blurring the edges of what actually comprises a book. Furthermore the reader would be excluded as much as included in the joke for the true “story”, that of Janowitz's inter-action with her peer-group, would lurk beyond his reach and establish that the reader has no right-of-access nor chance ever to fully decode an author's meaning. It was a bold idea but could only ever have worked through an incredible feat of authorial projection and sustained imagination. The entire concept was initially hobbled by the fact of Janowitz herself possessing a wholly Western set of perceptions and the consequent difficulties of simultaneously referring to and denying this. Although she tries to locate the entire enterprise in the realm of the absurd by using an epigraph from Lewis Carroll's writing, the problem needs a more ingenious solution. Critics and readers also proved intransigent and were puzzled by an enterprise which, for all its subterranean sophistication, struck them as being overtly naive, confused and possibly even racist.
Everything was wrong with the book. Dedicated to Andy Warhol, its inner focus was on Janowitz's private life and friendships. This was less experimental than élitist and readers reacted accordingly. When, in 1928, Djuna Barnes entertained her friends with caricatures and gossip in The Ladies Almanack, she had the sense to publish and distribute it privately to interested parties.
Mgungu is an uncivilized savage from, of all places, “New Burnt Norton.” (We are forced to note, tiredly, that the author is well read.) He is rescued by one Maria Fishburn, heir to a Great New York family. They are obviously supposed to belong to what used to be called “Our Crowd.”35 This smug expression was used to collectively describe the enormously rich Jewish families in New York (Guggenheim, Seligman, Gimbel, Loeb) who rose to power in the early part of this century. The “Our Crowd” now in the novel is actually Andy Warhol and his art-world henchpersons. For example, the “photographs” of Maria Fishburn are pictures of Paige Powell, Warhol-circus stalwart and Slaves of New York film starlet. Mgungu is a knowing modern “savage”, a professional “savage” who trades on the commodities exchange with money from the Feed the Infants Federation and knocks up shoddy artefacts for tourists. Maria brings him to New York for a Dance Festival at the Museum of Primitive Cultures, curator Parker Junius (photograph of Andy Warhol). Mgungu goes to a nightclub, meets an improbable Cockney rock star and a lovable delicatessen owner (photograph of Brigid Berlin, old Warhol trouper), Maria marries Mgungu but she is in the clutches of master criminal Reynar Lopato whose main interest lies in Mgungu's ability to concoct a powerful narcotic known as Joy Paul Guilford. Maria now gets the recipe. Lopato fraternizes with a dwarf called Mikhail, plainly modelled on Truman Capote. Capote's ghostly presence further underlines the café society parameters of the novel. Maria is killed and Mgungu, set up by Lopato, unknowingly consumes his murdered bride. Lopato intends to distribute Joy Paul Guilford and appropriate Maria's fortune. As a well-known public “cannibal”, Mgungu is an obvious suspect in her death. He goes on the run amongst the homeless on the streets and ends up in prison.
It would be possible, if unprofitable, to pursue the play of intended meanings throughout the book. There is the theme of the innocent abroad, misled by greedy, shifty New Yorkers and their lawyers. There are correspondences between “civilized” and “savage” behaviour and dense multi-textured attempts to locate primal forces in behaviour. The whole book is a turgid satire on modern manners and emits a steady low-grade fog of heavy-handed farce. It is carelessly written and often nonsensical in no very illuminating way—Mgungu's primitive home has patches of “couscous fur”36 stitched to the walls. Mgungu's language is in simplistic grammatical disarray: “The time did pass”; “the wind was howling very fierce.”37
Although undoubtedly good-natured the novel does not cohere on any level. The photographs of friends dressed up and credited in the index make an embarrassed voyeur of the reader, excluded from the in-jokes. As a sub-textual commentary on Andy Warhol and his world it might be of interest to the most demented Warholian acolytes—others might as well read his diaries, or a good biography. Like the Aykroyd/Belushi film The Blues Brothers, A Cannibal in Manhattan is a private album whose delicate clues to international gossip render it ultimately more inaccessible. As in the case of that particular film, it may amuse those who are heavily drugged—on Joy Paul Guilford perhaps. The final coy references to styling and designers in the acknowledgements make it more than ever a casualty of eighties greed, vanity and the tendency to believe in shallow public myths. It is as much doomed to date as the fashionable world it covertly flashes at us like a stripper granting a swift, pitying peep to a particularly frustrated and under-privileged audience.
Janowitz is not an untalented author but her grip on postmodernist fiction has so far proved shaky and it seems inevitable that she will have to reconsider her intentions. Although many people found A Cannibal in Manhattan more or less repellent it may be that, for a time, she was just another Andy Warhol victim (they should have had a Helpline) who succumbed to his whispers of “You're so great! You're a star! You can do anything you want!” (“He always played the evil fairy,” claimed an associate.38
Janowitz's progression from serious young littérateur to high society darling contains an unwitting commentary on such a dizzying social ascent; as in the case of Truman Capote, the higher she rose, the more her writing deteriorated.
Revue des Sciences Humaines, no. 168: 480. I am indebted to Toril Moi's Sexual/Textual Politics (New York: Methuen, 1985) for much of this analysis of contemporary French feminism.
Julia Kristeva, “A Question of Subjectivity,” Women's Review, 12 October 1986, 19.
Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill & Wang, 1975), 47.
Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (New York: Signet, 1974); Lisa Alther, Kinflicks (New York: Signet, 1977).
Erica Jong, Any Woman's Blues (New York: Perennial Library, 1991); Lisa Alther, Bedrock (New York: Knopf, 1990).
Joe Orton, “What the Butler Saw” in The Complete Plays (New York: Grove, 1977).
Tama Janowitz, American Dad (New York: Crown, 1981), 52.
Alice Munro, The Beggar Maid (Stories of Flo and Rose) (New York: Vintage, 1991), 28.
Tama Janowitz, Slaves of New York (New York: Washington Square Press, 1987), 1.
Ibid., 2, 6.
Ibid., 58, 59.
Ibid., 92, 115
Stephen Birmingham, Our Crowd (New York: Harper & Row, 1967).
Tama Janowitz, A Cannibal in Manhattan (New York: Washington Square Press, 1988), 19.
Vanity Fair (April 1992): 143.
*Djuna Barnes, “Seen from the ‘L’” in The Book of Repulsive Women (New York, 1915).
I am grateful to Graham Caveney for his assistance with the theory in the first part of this chapter.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 648
SOURCE: “Hiawatha Goes Hollywood,” in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 101, October 20, 1996, p. 13.
[In the following review Bolotin provides a summary of the plot of By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee.]
The creative muse manifests itself in many forms. Even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “Song of Hiawatha” has provided its share of inspiration, albeit mostly to parodists. But one has to wonder what it was about the famous narrative poem that got Tama Janowitz's juices going. Could it have been the notion of an innocent culture heading for its inevitable destruction, or the image of the magnificent Hiawatha revenging the sins perpetrated against his mother? Was it simply the stupefying tom-tom cadence? As my kids would say: Whatever. Or as I would say: No matter why you decide to set a novel by the shores of Gitchee Gumee, you may get soaked.
By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee, Ms. Janowitz's latest novel, is a picaresque satire of 20th-century America. The heroine, Maud Slivenowicz, 19, is one of five children living in a decrepit trailer near the now-polluted Gitchee Gumee (nuclear waste, don't you know?) with their kooky mother, Evangeline. (It might be time for Ms. Janowitz to discuss this Longfellow thing with someone.) Maud, whose favorite pastime is citing bizarre examples from “The Sex Life of the Animals”—“Did you know the blood fluke lives in a state of permanent copulation, inside a chicken?” she asks one new acquaintance—is on a big-game hunt for the right man to claim her virginity. Her sister, Marietta, is likewise obsessed with men and sex, but her literary taste runs to “Hiawatha,” which she quotes without even giving a person proper warning. The boys in the family fill their time fixing cars and dreaming of Hollywood stardom (the eldest), writing bad poetry and music (the next) and cooking (the youngest).
Though each child was born from a different, usually vaguely recalled liaison, they are all blessed with a striking handsomeness and what I'm sure Ms. Janowitz thinks of as a winning innocence. I found them uniformly uninviting and dull. But, as my kids would say: Whatever. Or as I would say: Oy. (That's not a totally gratuitous Yiddishism: one of the Slivenowicz dogs is named Trayf.)
Anyway, after a string of unbelievable events, the Slivenowicz trailer rolls into the lake. One of Evangeline's boyfriends, on the lam, kidnaps the culinarily inclined youngest, who is perhaps his son, as well as Maud and her oldest brother, Pierce (the one whose fantasies run toward Bel Air mansions). The kids outsmart the crook, escape and head for Los Angeles. Along the way, they steal cars, food and money; they bilk and abandon people who try to help them.
This is supposed to be witty, as is Maud's ability to persuade the studly though retarded Pierce to prostitute himself (and I'm not speaking metaphorically). “He's going to first see if you want to go back to his place. You don't. … You say you have an appointment, but indicate that alley in back. … Get a newspaper first, or something, if you want some distraction.”
Awful. And it goes on like that until the family is reunited in southern California, where Evangeline announces that she's pregnant with her sixth child, this time courtesy of a turkey baster (she's decided to try lesbianism). The entire Malibu community, rivaling the Slivenowiczes in silliness, falls for Pierce's pretty face, while Maud falls for Fred. (Trust me, you don't need to know who Fred is.) And so on, and so on, until I found myself wondering how I could ever have thought of “Hiawatha” as anything but brief.
When Longfellow died, he was the most famous poet in the English-speaking world. Over the generations since, his talents have been reconsidered, with “Hiawatha” most frequently cited as an example of his shallowness. Blessedly, Ms. Janowitz still has time to dig herself a deeper pond.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833
SOURCE: “This is the Forest Primeval,” in Washington Post Book World, October 20, 1996, p. 6.
[In the following review, Todd addresses issues of Janowitz's style and theme while providing a summary of By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee.]
Here's a bright gem of a book—literally. The jacket lettering is done in electric-blue and lime-green; a neon-yellow hairless dog is freakily emblazoned mid-page; and in the background are surreally rolling bubble-gum-pink clouds, which, if you remember, also featured prominently on the cover of Douglas Coupland's Generation X.
Which reference is confusing, because the distinctive landscape Tama Janowitz explores in her fiction doesn't have much to do with Coupland's frighteningly candid cultural snapshots. Sure, there are disaffected characters in TamaLand and references to pop culture and lots of funky retro clothing. But in general TamaLand is an upbeat place. Often (as in Janowitz's Slaves of New York and The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group) TamaLand is Manhattan, seen through the eyes of vaguely arty types: painters on the make, hat designers, staffers at obscure magazines. They live downtown, dress excellently, chat glibly, act quirkily, and know they're ultrahip and getting hipper all the time.
By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee is set in Longfellow country, but don't be fooled. Substitute trees for sidewalks, trailers for skyscrapers, and you're back in familiar territory. Inhabiting this version of TamaLand are the Slivenowiczes: mother Evangeline and her five children. These include the acid-tongued 19-year-old narrator, Maud, whose pastimes include reading The Encyclopedia of Poultry and discussing the mating patterns of octopi and other invertebrates; her Longfellow-reciting sister, Marietta; and their precocious 6-year-old brother, Leopold, who cooks for the family and says things like, “I can be a flirt, but basically I have no intention of being deflowered.” The Slivenowiczes live in the only trailer in a defunct trailer park near the town of Nokomis, which is 100 miles from the nearest mall, has a pizza joint staffed by a convicted child molester and a brand-new library without any books, where the librarian reads Candide during children's hour. Other characters include a born-again retired UPS stockholder, an English lord named Simon Halkett, who suffers predictably from boarding-school trauma; and a detoxed periodontist, who shares his supply of nitrous oxide with the Slivenowicz clan.
The first half of the novel takes place in Nokomis, where one of Evangeline's ex-lovers (a motorcycle-riding criminal who might be Leopold's father) holes up in the library and has a standoff with the FBI. The second half tracks the penniless Slivenowiczes' bizarre adventures as they wind across the country towards L.A., where they hope to make brother Pierce a movie star. What drives the novel is the speed of Janowitz's prose and the frantic weirdness of the scenes. Besides the standoff at the Nokomis library, there's a wheelchair chase, several carjackings, a kidnapping, and lots of farcical seduction scenes. The organization is episodic, and moving from chapter to chapter feels a bit like wandering around an amusement park: You go quickly from ride to ride, staying at each one just long enough to get a quick thrill, and then you're on to something new.
Janowitz's prose is popcorn-light, interspersed with moments of incisive satirical observation. A supermarket is “nice and cool” with the “faint aroma of decayed meat and rotting vegetables.” In a hotel lobby Maud peruses brochures: “A place called Butterfly World housed more than five hundred different kinds of butterflies and their larvae. An ad for the Weeki-Wacki Lounge and Supper Club said the lounge had been in operation since 1957. Real Polynesian performers danced nightly, and there was a photograph of a Mexican waiter holding up a suckling pig on a platter in front of philodendron.”
But all too often the writing is over the top. Metaphors are heavy-handed, as in this description of Simon: “He looked like an ethereal tuberculosis patient who wrote poetry on a mountaintop during the First World War.” Maud's voice is more absurd than funny. One moment she's considering a career in prostitution, the next she's sounding like a Jane Austen heroine: “I wish I were dead. What's going to become of me? My own mother doesn't even like me. I have no money, no connections, no talents, I live in a trailer that isn't even good enough to be called a Winnebago.”
Clearly this novel is a satire—of dysfunctional families, discount malls, fast food, freeway culture, L.A. movie culture, Florida retiree culture, trailer park culture and much, much more. In the best satires we recognize something of ourselves; but here everything is so frantic and disjointed that it all seems slightly unreal, like the hairless dog on the jacket. In TamaLand you get to gape at lots of strange people. You speed all over the place and you get few thrills. Sometimes violent things happen, but no one gets hurt. Everything is slick and neony. At the end of the day you leave feeling pleasant, a little lightheaded, a little queasy, and also a little bit empty.
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