Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tama Janowitz, "They Is Us"

Too often when I review a book I say "It wouldn't qualify for the Oprah Book Club!" Besides making a backhanded swipe at Oprah -- that'll teach her! -- I suppose my point is that there are books that sell and there are books that don't. One group is not necessarily any better than the other, but I think that Oprah's picks -- and the books displayed at the front of the book store -- are homogenized, straightforward, uncomplicated, safe, and somehow "established." Other than political screeds, olde-timey classics, get-rich-quick books, or that new brand of "blink and you'll miss it" sociology, those are the Books That Sell.

"They Is Us" by Tama Janowitz is NOT an Oprah pick. Like many of my favourite books it lacks the basic qualifications, alienating the reader almost from the first page. It's nasty and messy and horrific and strange, and no matter how big the "By the Author of Slaves of New York" sticker is on the cover I still don't think it's a "Book That Sells."

That isn't a bad thing but I think it's a shame.

I really wonder who Tama Janowitz's readership is. Who are her fans, and why do they like her books so much? I can only state why *I* do: I can relate to her characters, I never know what's going to happen in the next chapter, I appreciate the unconventional structure of the plots, I love her dialog, and -- most significantly -- even though her novels rarely have "a point" they leave a nebulous impression of "truth" that could not survive point-form distillation into a "Blink"-style sociology splurge. Her novels tell me something about people and the world and the way that we feel about each other, and those are very important topics indeed.

By writing about the world as it really is, through the eyes of people as they really are, the resulting "reality" seems -- paradoxically -- like utter fantasy. George Saunders takes this approach as well, though he usually ramps up the absurd satire by setting his stories in a future where things are even MORE like they are today.

Does Janowitz's readership enjoy the writing of George Saunders? If so, then I think they'll naturally embrace "They Is Us," as it takes a similar approach. The book is set sometime in the American future when all food is grown from the same handful of cell cultures, hologrammatic televisions permit infomercial hosts to step into your house and jump on your bed, and the dying people in the old folks home Tattooed, pierced, forced into activity by a condescending instructor who shrieks the lyrics of "Hollaback Girl" at them.

These "in the future" elements of the book are ingenious but I wonder if they are entirely necessary for any writer. As I said, Janowitz's presentation of everyday life in the CURRENT era is satire enough; the politics of consumption, patriotism, entertainment, and war are so NATURALLY surreal that there is little need to jump forward in time to show us where we're going. The astute reader, tragically, already suspects.

But many "future" elements of "They Is Us" work perfectly, especially in service of the humour and horror. Everybody is suffering from bizarre diseases and parasites, with enormous worms coming out of their noses and "stickers" burrowing through their internal organs. Science has taught everybody to worship "The Intelligent Designer." A genetic engineering company called "Bermese Pythion" has developed a series of tragic hybrids, including cockroaches that glow in the dark and sway gently to music in the dirty kitchen corners.

My favourite character is "Breakfast," a constipated talking dog who shuffles occasionally through the plot, saying things that perfectly epitomize the novel's horror-humour:
The dog keeps talking about sex, muttering, "Let's fock."

It always seems to happen just as Julie is dozing off, or is having a nice dream... It drives her nuts, that little weird voice, "Come on, leetle mommy, let's fock --" She grabs him by the scruff of his neck and says, "Breakfast, you've got to cut it out! What's wrong with you, you never used to be like this."

"I sorry," he says. "I sorry. I can't help..."
The horror-humour of "They Is Us" is pure Janowitz in many ways. The protagonists are -- in my eyes -- a riff on the family from "By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee," transposed into America's doomed future. But instead of finding eventual success and happiness -- or at least not failing too terribly at any given moment -- they fall prey to the increasing darkness of Janowitz's writing.

While her books have always had some element of grotesque and tragic horror in them, before "A Certain Age" this tendency was tempered with humour. "They Is Us" is still very funny, but sometimes the author stops grinning, and the contrast is a terrible shock. There is nothing funny about the fates of Tahnee and Dyllis, and it's at these moments -- I fear -- when some of Janowitz's readership might feel betrayed.

The other potential pitfall in the book is its curious presentation of time. Reading a Janowitz novel has always been like riding a ramshackle bulldozer through a blasted landscape, driven by an authoress who you don't entirely trust. There is very little "rising action - climax - denouement" going on; instead, things happen episodically to the protagonist, they gradually accumulate until something HAS to happen, and then...well, maybe something DOES happen, or maybe it just doesn't. This is a bit disorienting and it makes it difficult to construct a timeline in your head; you're often wondering "How long ago did that last thing happen in the book?"

"They Is Us" goes further. It's written in present tense, which gives a strange timelessness to the events. It also follows several different protagonists who do things independently in different places. And -- most importantly, though it isn't obvious at first -- the characters have serious issues with time perception themselves due to any number of "future America" problems, including mysterious diseases and an ominously underplayed "hole through the earth."

In "They Is Us" this is a plot point -- and it certainly pays off in the end -- but it can get a bit frustrating in the middle. I was frequently distracted, wondering if certain events had really happened and -- if not -- whether *I* had missed something, or if one or more of the narrators were unreliable, or if Janowitz had done some sloppy editing, or if -- as I suspect is the case -- the "future America" is simply disconnected from time perception altogether.

It is, after all, a world where traffic jams last forever, every day is a different season, clothes go instantly out of style, and depression-era hobos appear (without explanation) in the late 21st century. In this world, the only sure indication that time is passing is the President giving us another update about his approaching wedding (meanwhile hawking cheap junk on the shopping channel).

The beautiful, unexpected ending of the book has "time" as its central yes, this can only be intentional. But it IS difficult to follow if you worry too much about it.

This is an awkward book. Sometimes it's repetitive, and some of the characters -- Bocar for instance -- didn't interest me at all, so their moments of exposition left me cold and a little bored. "They Is Us" can also get buried under its own ideas, slowing down to a crawl to explain something that would be better only hinted at. This is a potential problem in any book that deals with an unfamiliar reality.

But despite (or maybe because of) all this messiness, it may in fact be the most complete and meaningful Janowitz novel that I have ever read. I mentioned earlier that her books make me feel like I've learned something about the world and the people in it. After all the goofy set-pieces, clever ideas, apparent filler, and general confusion of "They Is Us," the final chapters slam down with a sense of truth that reverberates backwards through the pages, giving purpose to everything that came before.

That might be "too little too late" for some, but not for me. It's not my favourite Tama Janowitz novel but it's probably the one that deserves the closest reading, and I think she's on to something here. I'm not talking about the politics of the book, I'm just talking about the mood: it's correct. It's beautiful and ugly and funny and tragic. It's awkward. That's life, then, now, and always.