Saturday, 1 August 2015

Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz


linked short stories

published 1986


Slaves of New York 1Slaves of New York 2



I was seated next to a girl wearing a rubber dress; it looked like a coat of latex paint. The sign in front of her plate said SAMANTHA BINGHAMTON, and every two seconds one of the photographers would come and snap her pictures. She had wild black hair (maybe a wig) and a long skinny neck, which was either very elegant or goosey – I couldn’t decide. So much for my one fancy evening outfit of sequinned top and black velvet skirt – it was nothing compared to what Rubbermaid had on. I could have strangled her…

Her best friend, in a feathered tutu, was seated across from us.

[the three women go to the restroom]
We applied various kinds of makeup from Samantha’s handbag. “That guy next to you, you’re with him, right?... He’s Stash Stosz, right? Who just got a terrible review?”

“Yeah,” I said.

She took a joint out of her bag. “Is he rich?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you?”

“No.”

“Well, why would you go out with him?” she said.

“I - ” I said. I was stunned.
 
Slaves of New York 3Slaves of New York 4


observations: So what happened to Tama Janowitz then? She was one of the big American writers of the 1980s: part of the bratpack of exciting new talent – Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and blog favourite Michael Chabon emerged around the same time. But really there was this book, and, intriguingly, a film, and then not much. She has produced further works, but none of them seem to have made much impression. You just don’t hear of her any more.

The key to the book, and its title, lies in the exchange at the end of the piece above. The ‘slaves’ of the title are young aspiring arty people in New York, who cannot afford the rents. So they live with someone who has a (usually terrible, tiny) place and cannot leave, they are stuck, and are at the mercy of whoever pays the rent.

Reading it again in 2015, I was struck by how very much of its time it was, but simultaneously not dated at all – apart from the lack of technology, most of it could pass for now (though I think people might object to the casual use of ‘slaves’ these days). The heroine objects to paying $2 for a cappuccino – this was before the days of Starbucks, and you can still get one for not much more than $2 in NY (at Dunkin Donuts), and they cost around £2-3 in London.

Janowitz’s world is a kind of proto-Sex and the City – everyone is poorer and it’s more realistic, but you could very much imagine the scene above in Candace Bushnell. And you also feel that nowadays Janowitz would be writing true confessions rather than short stories – she is definitely in the line of Meghan Daum, Lena Dunham, Sheila Heti. 

The book has an uneasy structure – most of the stories are about Eleanor, above, and are linked, but there is another character – Marley Mantello, starving artist – and some stories in the second person, and a few random others. My ultimate feeling was that if she had cut out a lot of it, and written an actual short novel about Eleanor, it might have been worked better. The dialogue is excellent and convincing, and the book is often very funny and acute – it stood up better than I was expecting. But the passivity of Eleanor is part of the point, and though Janowitz does make you interested in her fate, her helplessness and haplessness become too much in the end.

Slaves of New York 5
Clothes and clothes decisions are used to great effect in the book.  Eleanor designs jewellery and wears strange hats, and at one point has green hair. Janowitz herself was very distinctive-looking: the classic photo of her resembles a cross between Arianna Huffington and Caitlin Moran - see right:
 
For 30 years I have remembered the list of presents for a friend’s 30th birthday:
A Godzilla lighter (flames shoot out of Godzilla’s mouth); a record of Maria Callas singing Norma; a silk survival map of the Arctic Circle; a glue gun; a cassette tape of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks; a large plastic object with a pink pyramid-shaped cover (possibly made by the Memphis Design Collective) which might be a breadbox or an ice bucket; a ten pound bag of Eukanuba health food for dogs; a book about wrestling; and a Statue of Liberty hat – a spiky helmet of flexible foam. Daria puts it on.
But then she has to say: ‘I know that this assortment of gifts means something specific and symbolic about people my age who live in New York and are involved in the arts.’ Give your readers some credit, Tama.

I think perhaps the reason the book was so successful at the time wasn’t because her fellow young New Yorkers bought it, but because those who weren’t in New York for whatever reason liked its description of the awful life lived by Eleanor and Marley. Slaves of New York made them glad they weren’t following their dream and starving while living with horrible people.

With thanks to BNS for tireless coffee research. 

The pictures are from fashion magazines of the era, except for the rubber dress, which is from Pinterest – my goodness you can find some rubber dresses there.




















10 comments:

  1. I like your comparison of this one to Bushnell, Moira. I think they do have some similarities that go beyond the physical setting. New York's always been one of those places where people go to follow their dreams, and they are often willing to put up with some horrible living conditions to do it. It just seems to be a draw that way... And now you make me wonder what did happen to Janowitz...

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    1. Isn't it funny that people can fade off the scene like that? And I think you're right about NY - it's always fascinating. And people will always write about it...

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  2. Wow - very weird cultural flashback onto a black hole in my memory - I know I saw the movie at the time but can't remember a single thing about it ...

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    1. It was all so much part of the time, it's weird to re-visit. I think I saw the film at the time, but like you can remember nothing. If it's easy to find I might take a look, for interest.

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  3. You can find a picture of anything on Pinterest, can't you? I recall the name Tama Janowitz...but not why I knew it. Still, I love that "rubbermaid" line.

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    1. Pinterest is so weird, I try not to over-use it when looking for pictures for my blog entries. I agree: Rubbermaid is genius.

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  4. No familiarity with this at all. Doesn't sound like my kind of thing, now or then. But it may have been because I was a mother of a young child and working and etc., etc. But I looked the movie up and Bernadette Peters is in it and I have always like Bernadette Peters.

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    1. I'm going to have to get hold of the film I think, I really can't remember if I've seen it. Peters is great, isn't she? Never had the film career she should have.

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  5. Replies
    1. It is the tough end of New York life mind you - but still think you're probably right to avoid.

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