Her debut novel put her in the Brat Pack of the 80 s with Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis. Then she faded from position, a process she tracks in her new memoir
Tama Janowitzs youth reminds her of the movie Forrest Gump: a series of unlikely brushes with history. At 19, during a year abroad in London, she accidentally attended an early Sex Pistolsshow and detoured to France for a brief affair with Lawrence Durrell.( In Paris on her way home, she followed his instructions to visit a Left Bank cafe and watched Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre all arrive separately .)
A decade subsequently, in 1986, Janowitz published Slaves of New York. The bestselling short-story collection constructed her a starring in pop culture as well as publishing. She dined regularly with Andy Warhol, posed in a meat locker on the cover-up of New York magazine and became forever associated with Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney, the other notable members of an ascendant literary Brat Pack.
She touches on all of that, eventually, in Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, her first memoir. But Janowitz has no deep desire to relive those years. I did not especially like being semi-famous, she writes, 200 pages into the book, though her reticence to discuss that period becomes obvious much earlier. Her first memoir opens with a recent vignette in which the authors apparently sadistic elderly father Julian summons her to his home on the pretense that hes leaving the property to her. By the end of site visits, hes disowned her. The story triggers a deluge of brief, loosely connected chapters about her parents, childhood and recent years caring for her elderly mom in upstate New York.
When she ultimately interrupts the family narrative to address the part of their own lives she must know readers will be curious about, Janowitz clams up. Analyzing Warhol, she arrives at the banal conclusion that he wanted to appear like an onion, many layers but all exactly the same, even though you could tell that he was more complicated than that. Inside there was a suffering, lonely entity.
A chapter titled On Lou Reed devolves into a lament on how difficult it is to be friends with people who have money when youre transgressed. Of visiting Reed and his then-wife Sylvia in their Upper West Side home, she writes: If you dont have any shoes and nowhere to live, you dont want to admire someones apartment and their closet contents. Here is all she has to say about the social life of the Brat Pack: I knew each of my two packmates a bit.
Janowitzs greatest strength has traditionally been her bluntness, and theres certainly no absence of it in Scream. She inveighs against The Catcher in the Rye and skinny women who dont eat and Woody Allen( her gripe is with a small anachronism in Midnight in Paris , not his personal life ). She dispatches her brothers wife with comments and observations: She sits at home and watches talk demonstrates and soap operas. She even exacts posthumous retaliation on her educator Elizabeth Hardwick, who once quipped that Janowitzs work was not Chekhov, by marveling that she wrote so well without truly saying anything, about Henry James and so many other topics. When Janowitz get coy or retreats into clich in passages about her famous friends, it doesnt seem to be out of discretion. You get the sense, instead, that it aches her to give readers the rumor they want.
She claims to be barely surviving; its hard enough getting my books published. There has, indeed, been a seven-year interval between Scream and her last fiction, They is Us a substantial gap considering that Janowitz once produced volumes twice as frequently, almost always to harsh reviews. Her 1999 novel A Certain Age, which reimagines Edith Whartons The House of Mirth for the turning of the millennium, was a surprise critical hit for an author New York magazine described at the time as having become something of a publishing punch line. But when she attempted to update another classic, Madame Bovary, in 2003 s Peyton Amberg, she inspired a New York Observer screed on the perils of pretentious trash.
Once you get over your disappointment at Janowitzs refusal to detail her wildest nights of semi-fame, the irreverence of an writer whos desperate for money but still wont submit to expectations is thrilling. Theres an unspoken rule that women who be talking about their own lives must make readers empathize with them. So many memoirs take on the revelatory voice of Cheryl Strayed or the charmingly self-deprecating tone of the many famous female comedians whove recently published bestsellers. Scream is different. Though she loves to play the main victims, Janowitz couldnt care less about seeming reasonable. I did not write books to be liked, she announces, voicing more like a reality-TV contestant than a literary writer. This aggressive approach to memoir cant match the elegance of Strayeds work, but at least its novel.
Janowitzs awareness that people find her frustrate is endearing, too. She goes so far as to provide numbered examples of incidents where shes unwittingly raged person, in a chapter called How to Inspire Rage. But Screams brazen attempts at provocation often construct her look willfully ignorant. In another anecdote set in mid-7 0s Paris, Janowitz remembers, Most of the men who followed me were very aggressive Algerians. It was some kind of aggressive Algerian period in history. Later, theres a gratuitous footnote about the time a group of Hampshire College students visited her parent. As every student strolled in the door, each told Dad their name and announced whether they were He, She, or It, and their sex orientation, she writes. Both my father and I concurred: Who cares?
Like her vague considerations of New York in the 80 s, these asides are especially disheartening since they are overshadow Janowitzs dark humor and occasional insight. Shes at her best when reminiscing about her beloved mom, the poet Phyllis Janowitz. A few witty chapters cover the two years Phyllis and her kids spent in Israel following her divide from Julian. On the plane ride over, the paper dress 11 -year-old Tama is wearing starts to disintegrate and Phyllis madly collects safety pins in a futile attempt to keep it together. Not much subsequently, the author and her friend stand by as policemen load their mama into a paddy wagon; Phyllis hasnt paid their hotel bill because the local bank is always closed.
Scenes from the end of Phylliss life are genuinely moving. Janowitz captures, with startling eloquence, the experience of watching her mothers mind deteriorate: It was like trying to call person internationally, someone up on Mount Everest, with a bad connection. You could hear a word, you could hear two, you got aroused, you were going to speak. Then the wind got too strong. After Phyllis dies, she closes a chapter with the jarring realization, I would never have a mom again.
Scream is full of sentences in this style short, blunt, purposely self-evident which Janowitz deftly deployed in her early fiction. But they rarely have the emotional impact she intends, because she doesnt treat any other topic with the care she reserves for Phyllis. It builds you wish she had written an entire book about her mom. Perhaps she wanted to, but no one would publish it.
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