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Something Really Bad Is Always Happening to Former Literary ‘It Girl’ Tama Janowitz

The author of ‘Slaves of New York’ dishes on male reviewers, passing fame, and the satire of bad luck

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Tama Janowitz, 1997. (Fernando Bengoechea/Beateworks/Corbis)
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Tama Janowitz picked me up from the bus stop at Cornell on a recent summer afternoon. Her arm was in a sling. Slight and barefoot, in white plastic glasses and with a shock of platinum hair, she gave the impression of a wounded animal: delicate difficulty with movement coupled with stubborn survivalism.

Janowitz was not easy to find, nor was she easily convinced to allow me to interview her in Ithaca, N.Y., where she currently resides. Two years ago, it had fallen to Janowitz to put her mother, poet and Cornell professor Phyllis Janowitz, in a nursing home and to begin the arduous process of clearing out her mother’s house. “She still knows me, and I’m all she’s got,” Janowitz said, explaining why she remains upstate. “I can’t leave now.” Janowitz’s voice is deep and thick, almost a growl.

Like others, I had long wondered what had happened to the author of Slaves of New York, A Certain Age, Peyton Amberg, Area 212, and other classics of this breakout star of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the rest of the Literary Brat Pack continues to be up to the usual antics. Jay McInerney has a book out on wine. Bret Easton Ellis recently wrote the script for The Canyons, a film by Paul Schrader about a porn star, starring Lindsay Lohan and James Deen. (Ellis also spent last fall hyping himself via Twitter as the right person to write the movie adaptation of E.L. James’ best-selling erotic trilogy, Fifty Shades of Grey, only to lose out to British producer Kelly Marcel.) Janowitz, too, has published regularly since Slaves of New York, the collection of short stories about struggling artists that made her an overnight sensation in 1986. But unlike her counterparts who seem to court the gossip column, she doesn’t have a website or a Twitter feed, or lengthy search results on Perez Hilton.

Janowitz, like the other Brat Packers, has written deeply satirical work: hilarious and dark, scathing yet somehow forgiving, and set over three decades in a New York of stark brutality that’s a poor—yet richer—cousin to the Bloombergian present. Despite the fact that each of her novels is immersed in a particular historical moment whose details caress the work, the recurring themes of class and gender inequality, of social power and powerlessness rendered as scathing social satire, are Swiftian in their precision and their continued relevance.

Each of Janowitz’s books is different, with a completely original protagonist, despite her focus on the recurring themes. Slaves of New York is a series of short stories with overlapping characters, most of whom are part of the 1980s art scene, and their efforts to make it or to survive in the city. A Certain Age is a modern retelling of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. In Janowitz’s version, which begins at the Hamptons and ends on the wrong side of Houston Street, a woman’s life begins to devolve after a disastrous society weekend. Peyton Amberg is about a woman who achieves everything a modern, New York woman is supposed to want (a husband) but is left … wanting, in a modern rendering of Madame Bovary.

The books are meticulously plotted, beautifully illustrated satire in which, as the brother of her mother’s best friend once remarked after reading through Janowitz’s nine books, “First, something bad happens. Then, something even worse happens. And then, something even really worse happens, and then the book is over.” Janowitz’s response? “That’s about the nicest thing anybody could ever say! And one week later, this guy was at a play, and he stood up to applaud the play and he had a heart attack and died. And I thought, just after that compliment, he dies. You know?”

***

A broken arm, now in a sling, was one of a slew of misfortunes that had befallen Janowitz prior to my arrival in Ithaca. In her country exile, Janowitz rides horses regularly, and a horse had recently pressed her against a fence. She had assumed her arm was only bruised and had put off going to the doctor. The pain became unbearable, and she finally made an appointment to see a doctor, only to find out she had broken it in three places. But this wasn’t all. The doctor then failed to treat her properly. He had given her a brace, which had given her a rash, and which failed to protect her from the pain she was experiencing. On top of that, she has eight mini-poodles, which prevents her from traveling. She has a lame horse. Her car’s air-conditioning had given out. She took it to the mechanic. They told her they couldn’t fix it because it was an electrical problem.

“Is this normal for you?” I asked her over the roar of the wind coming through the rolled down windows of her car.

“Life’s not like that for others?” she asked.

From the bus station, she took me back to her mother’s house, where Janowitz has been living with her 17-year-old daughter Willow and her pack of tiny dogs, whose various barking, clamoring, pawing, and wheezing provided a maniacal Greek chorus to our conversation. Willow and her boyfriend Sasha roasted a chicken and vegetables over a fire while Janowitz and I sipped white wine with ice cubes and talked. Janowitz was eager to hear about my life, but eventually I got her to speak about her time spent at Studio 54 with her close friend Andy Warhol (“It was stupid how he died. A horrible mistake. There was a nurse there and everything. But nobody appreciated him by then, they were so mean, calling him a has-been.”), and the two years she spent in Israel as a young teen (“We lived in Herzlia Pituah. I loved it. We would walk on the beach and pick up ancient coins, and the men would walk after my mother and say, ‘Pretty lady! Want fuck?’ ”) and how burdened she was by the endless chore of clearing out 30 years of stuff her mother had accumulated.

Janowitz spoke in spurts. Sometimes her sentences would trail off, sometimes they would be interrupted by barking. She sat birdlike, the cast resting on the tiny dog in her lap, another dog by her thigh and one at her feet. She explained that she had started with fewer, but each time she got a new one, it had made her so happy. Their interactions remind her a lot of humans: “There’s the alpha, the beta, then they’re all the same, down to the one who’s last. If there’s five pieces of food and there’s six dogs, someone’s getting nothing. And in the human world, that would be me,” she sighed. “Even with them. I’d love to be the alpha with my dogs, but I’m obviously not. Demon is. He thinks he has to help me. If I speak harshly to one of the others, he thinks he has to punish them for me. He’ll jump off the bed onto them, rough them up.”

Indeed, Janowitz’s books are full of animal imagery. Of a desperate woman eating ice cream in A Certain Age, Janowitz writes, “she plunged her spoon methodically into the hardened mass, like a miner picking at chunks of coal. She ate blindly, unable to stop herself, no different from a butterfly repetitively plunging its proboscis, or a leopard tearing at a carcass. Such animal bliss! If only life could be lived in this state of pure being.”

Of a man discovering new things in Peyton Amberg, she writes, “He had been out in that heavily charted water that was new only to him, where the sea life swam—shrimps, or foraminifera, tiny crustaceans that shed myriad shells on the ocean floor. Creatures about which no one could say, really, whether their lives were lived more or less intensely than those of human beings.” Imagery and style pervade her works with astounding frequency. “It was his mouth that interested me,” a character observes in Slaves of New York, “as if a kiss had been planted on his face in the womb, and this later grew into a mouth.”

Janowitz’s sentences sparkle, rife with stunning visuals and cutting observations. (Nabokov, she told me, “is like a jeweler. His sentences are like necklaces of precious stones.”) In her work, a Santa Claus statue is “the alcoholic fat man, jolly pedophile cast in plastic, one of the world’s most peculiar cults.” A dive into cold water begins with “that physical smash, the body leaving its familiar position in the molecules of air and entering the molecules of liquid, far denser, thicker, with the slight moment of pain, a knife yanked from a drawer that now had to cut through butter.” An office manager is “a nice Jewish girl, reddish hair, freckles, a bit frumpy. An aura of the Passover seder, an invisible shtetl shawl around her shoulders.” A massage is “paying someone to molest the body while the mind lay chuckling to itself at its revenge on the entity in which it was trapped.” A woman considers herself: “So she had no morals. Who did? Only a Red Guard, beating an old professor in the name of Mao Tse-tung.”

Janowitz gives short shrift to egos (especially male egos) and takes economic reality seriously. Her books are Kryptonite to a certain kind of poseur, and at times scathing, which may explain their lack of appeal to the literary fiction set. When Florence in A Certain Age desperately seeks the help of a friend, she finds that “he wasn’t listening. He had cultivated the New York skill of tuning out completely the moment anyone began a story longer than two sentences, unless each sentence was about him.” Of the penis, Peyton of Peyton Amberg thinks sympathetically, “It must be awful to have that struggling hot chunk of meat between your legs, out of control, like having to lug a bratty child around all the time who at any minute might start thrashing for treats.”

***

The next day, I followed Janowitz on her daily visit to her mother in the nursing home. Dressed for riding in beige jodhpurs, worn leather ankle boots, and a pink T-shirt, Janowitz looked rakish, a cross between a runaway orphan and a pirate. We found Phyllis Janowitz sitting in a wheelchair in front of her room, a stunningly beautiful woman in her late 80s, with thick, wavy silver hair and beautiful skin and bone structure. In her mother’s presence, Janowitz transformed from the beleaguered misfit into a roguish tease, inciting the poet into scathing barbs at Tama’s expense, which Tama seemed to enjoy immensely. I wondered if this was the kind of intimacy they had always enjoyed, or if it was merely the only kind left to the two writers.

The influence Phyllis Janowitz had on her daughter is evidenced by Tama’s decision to switch from fiction to memoir in recent yeas. The poet’s mental deterioration made it impossible for her to read her daughter’s work, which in turn made it impossible for Tama to write fiction. Janowitz cites other influences, too, from Daniel Defoe to Olivia Manning. Another favorite is Edward Lewis Wallant. “It’s not like you’re reading it for fun,” she said of Wallant’s 1960 novel The Human Season. “It’s so full of understanding, passion, love, deep characters all suffering, anything in this tiny little world of a middle-aged plumber living in Brooklyn, his kids had grown up and left, all the small details, but it’s not about escaping concentration camps, it’s just the small life of this person, and it’s so beautifully done.” Janowitz thought for a minute. “I like the books that are about people that are marginal trying to survive in adverse conditions.”

Then there are the books she doesn’t like. “Saul Bellow was a good stylist, but his books for the most part didn’t hold interest in terms of characters or plot. But these men, they were so popular, who’s sitting around reading all of John Updike? Or Norman Mailer? Norman Mailer was not a great writer. These men are all like, swaggering around and getting front-page reviews. They have a big readership, and you know, in a couple of years, the kids reading David Foster Wallace because their teachers recommended it, you know, no one is going to be reading David Foster Wallace in 10 years, any more than they are reading John Barth or Robert Coover now. Most books stop being readable very quickly.”

When I asked her why she chose to write satire, she scoffed. “I don’t think I chose anything. It’s just the way you see the world, or something. I mean, if I could choose anything, I’d be writing Stephen King or something that made some bucks.” Instead, Janowitz wrote one book that made her famous but no money, and more books that made her neither famous nor any money. “The whole thing of getting famous from writing a book of short stories was a total fluke accident,” Janowitz told me in the car on the way to the farm where she rides every day. “And they weren’t prepared for the book to sell any copies. They had to go back and print more copies, and by then it was six weeks later. I never got any money from the book, it was just like suddenly, I don’t know, I was a kind of ‘It girl’ in New York, but I was so young and innocent, I didn’t know anything about what it meant to be photographed for Vogue.”

But the fame was short-lived. “I was famous for a second, then I was a has-been. The backlash happened so quickly. Even when I was on the cover of New York magazine, people would still be whispering about me when I came into a restaurant, ‘Who does she think she is, her book wasn’t even that good.’ And then, ‘Oh, she’s so last year.’ And that’s how they treated Andy [Warhol] at the end of his life too. It wasn’t just me, it’s anybody in New York who has some success is first viewed with jealousy; no one says, ‘Oh congratulations! You’re on the cover of New York.’ ”

Neither does Janowitz particularly miss the scene. After a while, she said, she stopped going to the galleries that had provided the material for Slaves of New York. “There was just too many stupid guys with their little turds being admired and selling for money, and the next year more money. I didn’t want to go look at people’s things on the wall. I’d rather go to a yard sale. I mean, to me that says more about the people in a culture than someone who’s got some chalk scratchings next to a plastic bunny rabbit.”

“So, the art got bad?” I asked.

“It was always bad! I just got less interested in looking at it.”

When I asked Janowitz to speculate about why her work wasn’t more popular, she said, “Look at the lives of women writers. Look at Jean Rhys. She was critically accepted, except she had no readership. Barbara Pym, she turned 56 and they didn’t want to publish her books anymore. Olivia Manning wrote those brilliant books, she was always broke. I mean—women writers, unless it’s Danielle Steele, I don’t see any happiness for them.”

“But why?” I pressed.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know. I mean, reading is not a huge thing for most people. But above and beyond that, you have male writers—from Hemingway to Styron, to Jonathan Franzen—there’s some sex drive thing. You can go to a reading of any of them and it’s all women—it’s a sex thing. The women are the readers and the admirers. Look in The New Yorker. All the articles are by men. And the reviewers who are women who review other women are vicious. Like, for no reason. The women who review men like the men, and the men like the men.”

“Women can be competitive,” I agreed and suggested this might be an effect of a patriarchal society. “They think there’s only room for one at the top.”

“Which is ridiculous,” she said, “because the top of Olympus is flat.”

***

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Something Really Bad Is Always Happening to Former Literary ‘It Girl’ Tama Janowitz

The author of ‘Slaves of New York’ dishes on male reviewers, passing fame, and the satire of bad luck

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