Tama Janowitz memoir 'Scream' is strangely lacking; Elizabeth Hand reviews

Bright lights, big hair: Once upon a time, in a gallery somewhere in Alphabet City, you might have glimpsed the 1980s NYC literati swilling champagne and snorting Bolivian marching powder under the gleeful gaze of photogs from Interview, the Soho Weekly News and the New York Post’s Page 6.

Dubbed the literary Brat Pack, writers Tama Janowitz, Brett Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Fran Lebowitz pioneered a kind of authorial celebrity that’s become commonplace. Young, smart, photogenic, they exuded a detached downtown cool at odds with the image of the writer as bleary-eyed, ink-stained wretch hunched over a Royal Upright typewriter surrounded by drifts of rejection slips. 

Janowitz joined the club with her second book, the 1986 story collection “Slaves of New York.”  She’d already published stories in the New Yorker, but the one that got everybody’s attention was “Modern Saint #271.”  Written in 1979, it featured a part of the male anatomy that dared not speak its name.

“Nobody wanted that story,” Janowitz writes in her new book, “Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction,” not even the tiny photocopied magazine that finally did publish it.  “Nobody then used the word penis except perhaps for doctors.… You can’t explain to people, when you are writing about the past, how taboo things were then ….”

Janowitz memorably evokes her anxiety when she first read the story’s opening sentence at a group reading at Symphony Space. “After I became a prostitute I had to deal with penises of every imaginable shape and size.” 

“Out in the audience there was a sharp intake of air … and then they began to laugh … [i]t was like throwing a bucket of water on everybody. Ice-cold water. They woke up, they were alive, my story was alive.”

It’s a great scene and a great evocation of the instant when a writer suddenly realizes her power. Sad to say, it’s one of the few moments in “Scream” when one gets a sense that Janowitz may have been an author whose work changed how Americans write about sex and power (and real estate). 

But Janowitz, like her New York cohort, is still best known for her early work (with the exception of Ellis, who saw controversy and success with “American Psycho”). All are essentially one-hit wonders, and some readers may long for Janowitz to break out of this particular club with her new memoir.

One sympathizes with the so-called hicks she’s lambasting, rather than the poor little 'it' girl. — Elizabeth Hand on 'Scream'

While there are some fine and even heartbreaking chapters in “Scream,” the books is surprisingly scattershot in its depiction of Janowitz’s life: the narrative leapfrogs from the recent past to the author’s childhood, to New York City and London in the 1970s, to upstate New York in the present, then back to her 1980s heyday, when she was on the cover of New York magazine, beautiful with a Medusa's mane of dark hair, and palled around with Andy Warhol and Lou Reed.

Janowitz amusingly skewers the socialites she meets, women like Lee Radziwill and Nancy Reagan who “spent a lifetime not eating … . No matter what you look like, when you spend time with one of these women you not only feel fat but expect to be responsible for one of their twigs snapping off.”

But the balance is heavily weighted toward dysfunction rather than glamour. Janowitz’s father was a wealthy, philandering, pothead psychiatrist who, well into his 80s, consorts with drug dealers and keeps a sawed-off shotgun under his bed. As depicted here, his behavior to his wife and daughter was so appalling and emotionally abusive that one wonders why on earth Janowitz didn’t sever contact with him decades ago.

Her accounts of her mother, the noted poet Phyllis Janowitz, form the memoir’s emotional core, especially as Phyllis develops dementia and her daughter moves to upstate New York to care for her, first at home and then in a series of nursing homes. Upstate, the former scenester shacks up with a hunky contractor, but her observations of the people she meets are off-puttingly sour and condescending. 

“They had the bleak haunted look of men who had never eaten anything outside of the hamburger, mayonnaise and Dorito food categories. … [Yet] they were all as interesting to me — or more interesting! — than the ‘sculptors’ and ‘artists’ and ‘actors’ in New York hustling and jockeying for position and trying to impress you ... .” Most of Janowitz’s fish-out-of-water anecdotes about rural life backfire: one sympathizes with the so-called hicks she’s lambasting, rather than the poor little “it” girl.

Janowitz herself remains pretty much a cipher throughout. She drops information but not insight. She owns eight poodles: why? She’s appears to be sleeping with the contractor and also still married to her husband — what’s that about?

We’re told repeatedly what bum luck she’s had, often living in poverty; yet she owns real estate, is well-traveled, graduated from Barnard cum laude, received an M.A. from Hollins on a full scholarship, was accepted to the Yale School of Drama. In the 1970s she lived in London and witnessed the birth of U.K. punk. At 19 she had a correspondence with Lawrence Durrell, who invited her to visit him in France, which she did. After the success of “Slaves of New York,” she met famous artists and writers and got cool magazine assignments, traveling to Machu Picchu, Egypt, the Amazon, Wyoming, Anguilla. She was even a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, just like Sylvia Plath.

These experiences are described so fleetingly and dismissively, and in such a random fashion, that the effect is like meeting an intriguing stranger who, by way of introduction, holds up a box of personal photos, dumps them onto the floor, then walks away.

“I wasn’t writing about ‘nice’ people or people who were redeemed,” Janowitz states about her early work. “I found rotten people to be more interesting. What made them the way they were?” Her memoir features a lot of rotten people — lousy neighbors, creepy men, a ghastly father, a mean brother, an architect who screams a lot, and all those skinny rich ladies — but no speculation or insight as to what made them what they were.

Still, “Scream’”s final chapters, dealing with her beloved mother’s death, are harrowing and heartrending, as are nearly all of the sections about their often fraught but enduring and loving relationship. One wishes she’d chosen to focus on this one complicated, loving, resilient person and less on the rotten ones.

Hand’s most recent novel is “Hard Light.”


“Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction”

Tama Janowitz

Dey Street: 304 pp., $25.99

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