The Age of Insolvency
On Tama Janowitz
Tama Janowitz. Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction. Dey Street, 2016.
This summer, a minor feud broke out in the press between Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney, two writers who alongside Bret Easton Ellis were known in the 1980s publishing world as the Brat Pack. This group’s fiction, despite its literary, quasi-experimental aspirations, was succinct, digestible, and directed at middle-class young people who were interested in so-called edgy pop subjects like cocaine, light sexual deviance, commodity culture, the lives of artist-scenesters, and the perils and highs of life on the city’s fringes. It was a literature that did not refuse materialism, but mined it actively to subversive effect. Though Janowitz, McInerney, and Ellis weren’t good friends, they were brought together at readings, photographed at parties, and gossiped about in Page Six. They were at once savage analysts of the Eighties and the era’s fizziest exemplars.
But since the eclipse of the decade they appeared to embody — and the aging of the literary generation they briefly headed — the members of the Brat Pack have taken different paths. Janowitz’s, by all accounts, has been the roughest. This past August, in an interview with the Guardian to promote her new book, Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, she expressed her long-simmering resentment toward McInerney, whose eighth novel had just come out. At the heart of the kerfuffle stood McInerney’s suggestion, in an interview way back in 1998, that Janowitz shouldn’t have appeared in ads if she’d wanted to be considered a serious writer rather than a “whore.” (In the ’80s and ’90s, following the publication of her breakout story collection Slaves of New York, she had done advertisements for Apple and Amaretto, among other brands.) Janowitz said that she was still hurt by McInerney’s suggestion and had felt “singled out.” Other authors, she said, had done ads. “I just couldn’t understand why . . . one author would call another author a whore, especially when that author kept marrying rich women.” (McInerney’s current wife, his fourth, is the heiress Anne Hearst.) “I needed money and I also didn’t want to sit at the desk every day.” Asked if she had ever told McInerney or other critics how she felt, she responded in the negative, saying, “It’s ridiculous to argue with idiots.” When approached by Page Six, McInerney seemed to take the high road, wishing Janowitz luck with her memoir. He claimed he didn’t remember censuring her for doing ads but did recall praising Slaves of New York in a review for the New York Times that, he suggested, “put her on the map.”
It’s certainly true that Janowitz was on the map, whoever put her there. For a time in the late ’80s, she managed to ably straddle the divide between the literary and the truly popular. While several of the Slaves of New York stories were published by William Shawn in the New Yorker before they were collected in the book, Janowitz’s success went beyond the conventional middle-to-highbrow road. As the poster girl of what David Foster Wallace called a CY (“conspicuously young”) writer, she was a new kind of literary celebrity. The hype surrounding her was relentless. With her vivid Stephen Sprouse dresses, pouffy dark mane, and bold makeup, she cut a striking figure, attempting with her persona as well as her writing to, as Entertainment Weekly assessed, “lure pop-cult fans away from the tube and into the bookstore.” The Merchant Ivory film adaptation of Slaves, for which Janowitz wrote the screenplay; her friendship with Andy Warhol; her magazine covers and Annie Leibovitz–shot ads; her star-studded parties and multiple appearances on Letterman (including one in which she chewed gum and dared the host to open a can of sardines on air) — it all made for great copy, and Janowitz delivered.
Janowitz’s ascent, however, proved fleeting. She went on writing novels, publishing a new one every few years, but none achieved the success or the zeitgeisty buzz of that first collection. Slaves’s loosely interlinked stories centered on the pressures and boons facing the city’s creative circles in the ’80s, when artists were still able to emerge from the struggling margins into plush yuppiedom — a transition figured as a threat but also as a hope and a promise, as bohemianism and capitalism became increasingly intimate, increasingly necessary bedfellows. The works that followed, however, told a story of decline, in terms of both their reception (cooler with each passing book) and their narrative themes. To examine Janowitz’s life and work is to observe a young, talented writer make a big splash at the onset of her career and then, failing to recapture popular and critical success, continue to write nonetheless, producing works that dramatize her fall from grace. McInerney has been able, to the detriment of his fiction, to become less reflective about the crass realities of material life, which he and his characters take for granted as natural and reasonable. Janowitz has taken the opposite tack: the material circumstances of her protagonists’ lives — as well as her own, as we learn from her memoir — do not disappear but become so pronounced and all-encompassing as to verge on lethal.
Unlike McInerney, who recently told the Paris Review he prizes “literary heroes Faulkner, Joyce, and Kerouac,” Janowitz isn’t fond of the kind of stream-of-consciousness modernist narration that once embodied literary quality and a kind of brawny individual agency. As she notes in Scream (with no small amount of bravado), books like Ulysses and Look Homeward, Angel are representative of “an entire first two-thirds of the twentieth century dominated by male writers who were actually pretty lousy but about whom you weren’t allowed to say anything.” Her work instead owes much more to 19th-century naturalism, which highlights the inescapable entrapment of individuals within the oppressive systems in which they are made to operate, be they familial, economic, romantic, social, or bodily. Some of her later novels are explicitly contemporary versions of classics of realism or naturalism: 1999’s A Certain Age is an adaptation of Wharton’s The House of Mirth; 2003’s Peyton Amberg a take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Others amplify the menacing animalistic elements of naturalistic fiction into full-on apocalyptic narratives, extrapolating the dreadful fate of individual characters into collective fictions of fantastical destruction.
Janowitz’s preoccupation is with portraying the encounter between an uncertain, struggling protagonist and the chaotic, hostile world around her, which can only result in a downward spiral. As she writes early on in Scream, “Try as I might, for me, other human beings are a blend of pit vipers, chimpanzees, and ants, a virtually indistinguishable mass of killer shit-pickers, sniffing their fingers and raping.” In Janowitz’s memoir and in her fiction, the suffering modern subject who must persist in such an apocalypto-Darwinian landscape is almost always a woman. This is not a coincidence.
In 1981, five years before Slaves of New York, Janowitz published American Dad, a largely autobiographical novel in which two young brothers experience the debacle of their parents’ divorce and their mother’s long suffering at the hands of their father, a tyrannical psychiatrist whose will to power oppresses the family with irreversible consequences. Janowitz is the model for the elder brother, the novel’s narrator, and the seeds of her later writing are already present in the voices of her main characters. For Janowitz, the patriarchal American family is a prison (“Is there no way out of this family? It’s like a thought-form that’s taken physical dimensions”), which subjugates and erases brilliant, sensitive women (“No credit for the joke, no credit for designing the house with him, no credit for raising you kids. I might as well never have existed at all,” the narrator’s mother says of her husband). Upward mobility is a false promise (“I’m not staying in my room until my life improves because I know it’s never going to improve”), and human beings are held captive by their animal needs (“nature makes no demands on a person but simply exists, how things grow and germinate and eat and are eaten . . .”).
Slaves of New York represented a temporary swerve from this worldview. Many of the stories point toward the possibility of a way out — an ambient shift that likely contributed to the collection’s popular success. In “Life in the Pre-Cambrian Era,” the painter Marley Mantello walks down to his bank on Wall Street “to take out another dollar or two,” a ritualistic stroll to a branch that he has chosen for its distance (“this way I wasn’t tempted to spend money as quickly”). On the way, he sees workers leaving their firms for the day, “newly released from their office tombs. Grim faces, worn down like cobblestones, never to make anything of their lives.” Next to these Metropolis-style zombies, Mantello, as he notes, “stood out. With my long, lanky stride, my scuffed Italian loafers and my beat-up, faggoty Italian jacket”: “It didn’t bother me, the looks and stares I got. People were angry with me, and why? Because I was some sort of freak, an artist. They were trapped, and I wasn’t. So I felt smug, even though I was starving.”
For Janowitz, the patriarchal American family is a prison, which subjugates and erases brilliant, sensitive women.Tweet
Still, from its unequivocal title onward, Slaves stresses how artists and office drones alike are ensnared by the ideologies propping up Eighties New York. Janowitz presents an often-satiric assessment of a system in which most people — not least women — are locked in a losing race for notability and achievement, never completely able to bridge the widening chasm between the dream of success and paltry reality. “I was embittered. It was hard not to live in New York and be full of rage,” admits the struggling jewelry designer Eleanor, a protagonist of several stories. Her decision to remain in a relationship with her more successful but emotionally miserly painter boyfriend, Stash (short for the Polish Stashua, but in its truncated form suggestive of a meanly squirreled-away reserve), hinges at least partly on his large-enough loft apartment and on her inability to afford her own place while pursuing her as yet unlucrative career. Beyond-reach real estate mixed with the ubiquitous promise of artistic success and a dash of grasping dissimulation and spiritual starvation: this constant drumbeat of life in New York City, now nearing an apex of unlivability, was captured presciently and remarkably by Janowitz. It was the moment to see it: recovering from the 1970s financial crisis, a property boom was fueled by low interest rates, and the city’s impoverished aspiring artists could either sink or swim. The breach was enormous, but it could be forged by a single lucky break. As Eleanor has it:
My mother had warned me about New York, but I was prepared to work hard, and I figured eventually I’d make it. I wasn’t the only one in my situation. 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 in the Xerox place were really novelists, all the receptionists were artists. There were enough examples of people who had been receptionists who went on to become famous artists that the receptionists felt it was okay to call themselves artists. But if I was going to have to do something like copy edit two or three days a week, I didn’t want to lie to myself and say I was a jewelry designer. I figured I should just accept reality and say I was a copy editor.
A copy editor might remain a copy editor forever, and the lucky break might never come. But despite the looming threat of failure, many of the stories in Slaves are surprisingly buoyant. These are not Mary Gaitskill’s neo-Gothic ’80s tales, with self-harming anorexic artists chasing oblivion while stripping, practicing loveless S&M, and snorting speed in East Village dumps. There is, rather, something seductive, horizon-facing, in the way Janowitz presents the lives of artists. Your clothes may be ripped or strange, you may live in a glorified broom closet, you may be on edge and frantic (as Eleanor says at one point, “I consider life itself to be an act of desperation”), but strong feelings, even of hopeless frenzy, can give you agency. People are mad at you for being a footloose parasite, but they’re also jealous, enamored. You are potential personified, rejecting stultifying, day-in, day-out labor in favor of a winner-take-all, studio-oriented entrepreneurialism. You wear a zany silver coat, as Eleanor does, and feel “pretty zippy . . . [like] Manhattan was just waiting for [you] to conquer it” — even if immediately after this, a neighbor sitting on a stoop points at you and laughs. And while New York might almost be killing you, it’s worth it to stick it out for a while more, because who knows, you may rise to the top of the pile, a gleaming exception to the city’s dreary rules. This might be a quintessential instance of culture-industry false consciousness, but seductions of the you’re-gonna-make-it-after-all variety are powerful. For all its residents’ protestations to the contrary, New York is still very much a part of America, with its outsize promises of worldly bounty. It stands to reason that one might suspend Adorno and Horkheimer’s spoilsporty disbelief as long as one still has the chance to win.
When Janowitz is grim about the mercenary New York art world, she performs detachment with a fine knowingness. At a fancy art dinner, Eleanor is seated next to Samantha, the rich wife of an important gallerist and an aspiring rock star in her own right, who wears a rubber dress and keeps getting her picture taken. “I could have strangled her,” the half-sneering, half-envious Eleanor says. Later on,
her best friend, in a feathered tutu, was seated across from us, and when the tutu girl got up to go to the restroom I asked Samantha what her friend did. “She goes out with Fritz,” Samantha said. Fritz was a sculptor, famous for his work in lemons and mirrors. “She’s only eighteen and a real witch.” So much for best friends, I thought.
It’s not great to be surrounded by status-conscious bitches always clawing past you, but it is funny to gawk, and Janowitz is a wonderfully astringent observer. The mention of a sculptor “famous for his work in lemons and mirrors” is a nice low-key zinger, suggesting how, with a bit of luck and a good line, very little could be stretched into a lot more — though of course, in the long run, not nearly enough. When Samantha is flummoxed by why Eleanor would want to stay with Stash and invites her to meet her wealthier brother-in-law, Eleanor is tempted. But in the end she decides to go home. “I realized that I really did want to be where I was — with Stash, in this hovel,” she says. “At least in this place I had love.” Even when Eleanor and Stash break up, there is an optimistic gentleness to the proceedings. The final story in the Eleanor series is sweetly open-ended; she throws a half-disastrous, half-fun party. The life of an artist may be dangerously precarious and relationships may be impossible, but these are facts to be joshed about at a social gathering, not things that might determine, like a gypsy’s curse, the path one’s story will take. The escape hatch has not yet been sealed; a sliver of sky remains.
The commercial success of Slaves and its ongoing status as a pop-cultural touchstone imply that many of us were, and still are, quite similar to Janowitz’s trapped office workers, looking with a mixture of contempt and fascination at the outliers. No one was better than Janowitz at delivering this bittersweet bohemian landscape. She was sharp enough to erect a critical scrim between the reader and her often ridiculous, often unscrupulous protagonists, but warm enough to make the youthful fantasy relatable. The built-in awe and nostalgia for that moment can be found even in the epigraph, in a quote from Dorothy as she awakens from her adventures at the end of The Wizard of Oz: “But it wasn’t a dream, it was a place. And you — and you — and you — and you were there. But you couldn’t have been, could you? This was a real, truly live place. And I remember that some of it wasn’t very nice — but most of it was beautiful.”
For the past year and a half, there was some excitement among book people of my acquaintance about Janowitz’s upcoming “Eighties memoir.” Those who have thought of her as an unjustly forgotten voice of that decade were perhaps hoping that Scream would prove the charm and return Janowitz, and by extension its readers, to the imagined Eden of that era, when the drama of artistic ambition was not so certain to end in disappointment.
This, however, was not to be. Since Slaves of New York, Janowitz has published six novels and one essay collection, none of which have done as well as that 1986 best seller. (They Is Us, her most recent novel, was unable to find an American publisher and was released only in the UK.) As she writes in Scream, American Dad was also a failure, selling only 1,500 copies “because a cookbook author who was assigned to review it in the New York Times Book Review decided to trash it and crush the twenty-three-year-old first-time author.”
This kind of narration — weighty with gripes, deeply attuned to slights — marks Scream from its earliest pages. A note on the copyright page, to start, is not much at all like Slaves of New York’s now-thirty-year-old epigraph, though its general rhythm might at first recall that of Dorothy’s soliloquy. “This is a memoir. My memories. It is what I remember. Except some of the people were a lot worse,” the author writes. For a book that slings a not inconsiderable amount of shit, this statement is clearly a preemptive, quasi-legal gesture. Dorothy’s reiterated “you” is replaced here with an “I” not at all pleased with what it’s seen.
Most memoirs find their raison d’être in the recounting of a life’s low points; the fact that the writer has survived to tell the tale throws the climb back up into glorious (or, at the very least, consoling) relief. Janowitz has no interest in this mode, or perhaps no capacity for it. Instead, she describes her life as a series of dreary, chaotic disasters, all barely struggled through, resulting in neither collapse nor triumph but a near-constant, dragging effort. In this context, it makes sense that she would have no true desire to write about her career high point. The glamorous Slaves period would have provided, in most other memoirs, a conventional peak (if remembered fondly) or valley (if, say, a crippling drug addiction or a strangling depression was battled against behind closed doors), but not so in Janowitz’s memoir. She describes at length the process of sending off the stories that became the book while living in not-quite-genteel poverty outside Boston with her mother. After detailing the weighing of each envelope at the post office, the rude postal clerk, and so on (the literal and metaphoric confinements of bureaucracy — tax paying, litigation, nursing-home-related red tape — take up a large part of the book), this is how we arrive at the turning of the author’s fortunes:
Mailing one story a day slowed me down almost as much as writing a whole book and getting it rejected. But I kept at it. And finally, The New Yorker published “The Slaves in New York,” and everything changed for me. I moved to New York and found a meat locker measuring ten by thirteen feet that had been converted to an apartment. But I was able to get my second book, Slaves of New York, published in 1986. I appeared on the cover of New York magazine in an evening dress standing next to meat in a meat locker next to my apartment in the Meatpacking District.
This is as much detail as we get. A mere two paragraphs down: “Ten years after this initial bout of success . . .” The proportions here are so off that I’d argue this is a willful punking on Janowitz’s part, as if to say: You came here to read about my life in the Eighties, that decade I helped create, the last time I was truly famous, an “it” girl? Well, fuck you, because now you’re going to hear about my crazy father, dementia-addled mother, complicated love life, constant money problems, that time when I was already in my fifties and sewage water flooded the tiny trailer I lived in alone in an arid field upstate with my eight dogs, and all the rest of it.
Janowitz seems to have come by this attitude honestly. Born to a psychiatrist father (who’d “fucked so many of his female patients” he was hardly able to tell them apart, went through multiple wives, was miserly and lascivious and domineering in equal measures) and a housewife-professor-poet mother (brilliant and loving but, following her divorce from her egomaniacal sex-fiend husband, consistently teetering on the verge of turmoil and poverty), she learned how fragile the world could be. Money could disappear suddenly. Relationships that seemed lifelong one moment could dissolve the next. Women could and would be made to feel weak and crazy by men who fashioned themselves as powerful masters.
There is no thrill in this victimhood — not in Janowitz’s mother’s mistreatment at the hands of her husband or in her difficulty gaining recognition for her poetry, and not in Janowitz’s inability to consistently hold men’s attention or achieve lasting literary fame (or, crucially, solvency: “I was always so broke,” she keeps reminding us). In fact, it probably would have been easier, better, to be a more conventional victim. Then at least there would have been respect, or at least notoriety. This is an option Janowitz raises in jest — it makes for some rare funny moments in this bleak memoir — but there’s a core of truth in it, too. When in London in the late ’70s as a young woman, she meets the Sex Pistols but fails to grasp their importance and the dubious advantages of hitching her wagon to their rising star. “I missed so many opportunities along the way because of my fears and shyness! If only I hadn’t thought the Sex Pistols were so untalented and unattractive, I could have ended up as Nancy Spungen.” Rim shot, yes? But a similar riff occurs when Janowitz is selected while a student at Barnard to be a guest editor at Mademoiselle, just like Sylvia Plath and Plath’s Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. Sent to help on a photo shoot, she burns a blouse while ironing, and at once, her “life was as ruined as the blouse”:
Would this have happened to Sylvia Plath? She had been a guest editor and went to dance with Yale men during her time at the magazine on the roof of the St. Regent’s hotel. There was no mention in The Bell Jar of being sent out to iron. But if she had been, she would have ironed beautifully, I am sure.
Janowitz may not know how to iron, or die tragically and remain a frozen-in-time legend, but she also doesn’t take things lying down. Writing her boss after the blouse incident, she composes with the help of her mother a “letter-as-performance-art” that begins as a mea culpa (“I’m writing to apologize for the terrible thing I did”) but transforms by its second paragraph into a hilariously, almost admirably unhinged justification of her behavior:
And what if something had happened to me? New blouses can be bought but I am not replaceable. . . . How do you think it felt to me sitting there doing nothing but watch that girl being photographed, simpering away as if she were really it instead of a mere nobody whom nobody had ever heard of. And those wretched people, like the photographer who kept saying he would see me again soon and who never called me.
Janowitz may be a drama queen, but the drama, though endless (her on-again-off-again boyfriend is on again and off again; her father names her an inheritor of his property, then disowns her; her finances are in constant disarray; the renovations on her falling-apart husk of a house are a money pit), never really changes the downward slope of her situation. Her anarchic encounters with the world have returned her to the mire. And Janowitz’s mother — who is diagnosed with dementia and whom Janowitz moves upstate to nurse — provides a chief example of this biological certainty: “My mother is lying on her side with her diapers full of shit. She was a professor of English at Cornell University and an award-winning poet when she retired less than three years ago.” All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Janowitz may be a drama queen, but the drama, though endless, never really changes the downward slope of her situation.Tweet
This is true, too, of many of Janowitz’s fictional women, who are so much more reliant on outside circumstances, and especially on men, than their male counterparts. In Peyton Amberg, the titular protagonist grows up in a Zolaesque bog of a Boston childhood — hardship and crime, a mentally ill mother, meager career prospects. But thanks to her beauty and raw allure, she manages to achieve a middle-class marriage to a milquetoast Jewish dentist who refers to her as “sexy princess.” This haven, however, turns out to be just another trap, a swamp of boredom and dissatisfaction: “She thought of herself as a sort of girl — woman — who obeyed the rules, who had struggled to pull herself out of a pit — of poverty, lack of options — and had lucked into this prime position only to discover that she was all too ready to toss everything away.” The book follows Peyton’s attempts to extricate herself from her prison, if only momentarily, through sexual adventuring and a long string of affairs, since “what else was there for women? They trawled for men or they had a man.” But as Peyton grows older, these attempts bring her lower and lower, physically and mentally, as the aging female body itself becomes a prison.
Janowitz’s writing doesn’t just draw on naturalist tropes of decline here; it also recalls, with a bitter twist, popular women’s-lib fiction of the ’70s. The figure of the seemingly dependable but sexually repulsive dentist/doctor husband appears in two classics of the genre, Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room (1977) and Judy Blume’s Wifey (1978). He is unsurprisingly, depressingly, named Norman in both, and in both, too, the stuck-in-the-suburbs heroine seeks to break her chains and revolt against her stifling circumstances to achieve greater emotional and intellectual freedom, sexual satisfaction, and a more reflective understanding of her conditions. Unlike French’s and Blume’s heroines, Peyton instinctively knows an emancipatory arc is out of her reach. Her story is set in stone from the start, because, as she tells herself, “She should have known enough about her own genetic destiny to realize she would manage to fuck things up.” And in any case, her life has taught her that a woman is of no use “unless she was young and some man wanted to sleep with her.” Sex, even when transporting, is just another trap.
In A Certain Age, too, the Lily Bart–like protagonist, Florence Collins, hangs on by the skin of her teeth to what she imagines are her fading looks, her about-to-be-foreclosed-on New York apartment, and her precarious social status. Her constant Darwinian battle for survival determines the downward arc of the book, which describes a world where the only things that matter are beauty, youth, and money. Janowitz doesn’t even allow Florence the final release Wharton gave her heroine at the end of The House of Mirth — Bart’s delicious drugged sleep, sliding imperceptibly into death, “a soft approach of passiveness.” Instead, the end of A Certain Age finds the debased, crack-addled Florence gnawing at the “cindery edges” of a chocolate bar, trudging “into the darkening gloom, toward the mouth of the Hudson and the Statue of Liberty,” like the wretched refuse of a teeming shore making the trip in reverse. “It was the end of the twentieth century, which was to say anyone robbing widows and orphans could find some justification for their actions. Maybe things had never been any different. Yet one would have expected more signs of evolution in the human race by now.”
This is the end, but the problem with this sort of end is that it goes on and on — “a nightmare of human waste, filth and consumption,” as one of the characters in the dystopian They Is Us says, describing life in the toxic swamps and petrochemical wastelands that are New Jersey in the near future. As Scream draws to a close, Janowitz’s mother has passed away. She is still broke. She is awaiting trial as her brother has decided to take her to court for an alleged mishandling of their late mother’s funds. “What happens? What happened,” Janowitz writes in a final chapter titled “No Conclusion,” an acknowledgment that the past exists only to repeat itself. There are no signs of evolution. There are no signs of revolution either.