Thursday, April 02, 2009

"Slaves of New York" by Tama Janowitz

I absolutely love every single book by Tama Janowitz. They may have gotten darker and even more pessimistic over the years, but she's an author whose outlook I can certainly relate to. When I read a Janowitz novel, I read about myself.

You see, Janowitz only really has two types of characters in all of her books. One type -- always the protagonists -- are the "outsiders." They're obsessive, self-conscious people who seem to be missing some crucial social skill, and as a result they end up alienating themselves and others. They're anxious, and when they go out into the world they always end up doing the wrong thing, and then they agonize constantly about what they've done. These characters endure a long string of humiliations until -- finally -- the book simply ends.

The secondary characters, on the other hand, are "integrated people." They're just as flawed and ridiculous as the outsiders, but somehow they remain confident, usually because they're shallow and stupid.

In all of Janowitz's books, the outsiders try to gain status with a mass of powerful integrated people, believing that the only way to be happy is to be accepted. This never, ever works because the integrated peple always triumph, generally because they don't play by the same rules as the outsiders -- they honestly don't care what anybody thinks and they are usually of a privileged class. And if two outsiders ever get together, they instantly start to squabble...they can't be friends either.

My world view isn't as downbeat as Janowitz's is, but I still relate to her socially-awkward, anxious, bumbling protagonists. They say the wrong thing at parties and they never manage to learn the rules. They are often paralyzed by self-consciousness, worry, and critical analysis. When they express themselves, people think they're crazy...and they DO sound crazy, really. So it's comforting for me to realize that Janowitz -- who I respect immensely -- probably relates and thinks exactly the same way I do. That feels good.

Anyway, she has a new book coming out called "They Is Us," and I'm on fire waiting for it to arrive. In the meantime I decided to re-read "Slaves of New York," her breakthrough 1986 collection of short stories. It was the first Janowitz book I ever read, somewhere around 1991, and I haven't picked it up since.

It really is a funny collection, centered around a handful of successful -- and failed -- artists in New York City. They struggle to get their paintings showcased by meddling gallery owners, and then fight twice as hard to get those paintings bought by vicious, mercenary art collectors. They sleep around and go to lots of parties. They earn very little money. But, most importantly, they are constantly struggling to climb the social ladder...something that Janowitz's protagonists are notoriously bad at.

In "Slaves of New York" the outsider protagonist is Eleanor, an insecure hat designer who appears in half of the stories. She is one of the many "slaves of New York" in the book: people who can't afford to get their own New York apartments, so therefore have to be romantic slaves to people who DO have apartments.

Janowitz wrote (and had a small part in) the movie of the same name, which came out in 1989. I think it's a fabulous movie, though it suffers a bit from poor acting and Janowitz's episodic style. I just watched the movie again tonight and I realize that part of the problem is that much of it has been dubbed afterwards, probably because it's incredibly noisy to film in New York. Bernadette Peters -- who plays Eleanor -- is the only actress who can really dub convincingly.

If you compare the book with the film carefully enough, you notice that a few little touches have been added to make it more upbeat. Stash -- Eleanor's boyfriend -- has been made more volatile and childish in order to make her appear more socially normal. You get to see Eleanor's moments of success -- her breakup with Stash, her fashion show -- which, in the book, actually happened IN BETWEEN the stories and were mentioned in offhand flashbacks, as though Janowitz couldn't bring herself to write such things.

Most important is the final character, Jan, who is the ONLY normal person in the movie and who literally sweeps her off her feet. In the book he's just as unreliable and laughable as the rest of the "integrated" people, and the reader is left with both Jan and Eleanor concluding that a successful relationship is "impossible."

Throughout the movie, the characters end up seeing a few bands and performance artists, and here's the woman who upstages them all: Johann Carlo singing "Say Hi," her own composition. This song wasn't on the soundtrack and has never, ever been released anywhere, but a small group of people in the world are clamouring for a good copy. PS: The song ends halfway through the clip

And in case you think Johann Carlo looks familiar...yes indeed, she was Dixie the Cab Driver on Pee-Wee's Playhouse!


Gary said...

Thank you for the post & capsule summary. This book remains on my "to read" list.

Saw Janowitz interviewed on TV a few years ago. Interesting person and apartment...also, I believe that she kept ferrets as pets.

Just another New York moment!

Hilda said...

Wow! "Slaves of New York"! I read that book when it came out, and while I don't remember much about it I remember I loved it. I hadn't thought about it in years. And now I remember I also saw the movie, but alas remember nothing about it.

I just added the movie to my Netflix queue!.

Anonymous said...

When will we be able to buy this new book ? I keep reading about it, and can't wait !! Tama is my fave.

Adam Thornton said...

I know what you mean, Anonymous. I Just found out about it two weeks ago, and the local bookstore said that the hardcover had already stopped being published and the softcover was on its way in a few weeks.

So they made it sound like it should be available again in a week or so. I'll check back with the bookstore soon and see...

Anonymous said...

thank you so so so much for your kind & intelligent words and if i had any copies i would send you the latest book but i don't. but you could get it on amazon uk and i could personalize it for you if you wanted.
yours truly

Adam Thornton said...

I'm still waiting fruitlessly for "They Is Us," so I'll happily go to amazon UK for it if need be.

Of course I'd love some do I go about it? Sadly -- and surprisingly -- you do not have a homepage.

Anonymous said...
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Elizabeth said...

OMG! I found your blog by googling "what happened to Tama Janowitz" and I find someone who loves her writing as much as I do! Yay!

I live in Brooklyn and I keep hoping maybe she'll do a reading sometime, or I'll bump into her on the subway or something, but I have seen and heard nothing of her for some years! I didn't even know she had a new book coming out.

Anyway, thanks for the post, and the song (I love that song - I have the movie on VHS; I don't think it's available on DVD).

Elizabeth said...

I read the comments after posting mine, and now I see that TAMA HERSELF commented! Wow! Lucky you! Now I'm embarrassed because I used bad grammar in my quickly-dashed-off previous comment, plus maybe she will think I am a crazy stalker if she comes back and sees my comment. Ha!
I swear I'm not a stalker but I do love everything you write, Tama!

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