Ghosts in the Machine

Michael Dibdin

  • Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz
    Picador, 278 pp, £3.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 330 29753 8

How do you like to be approached by a strange work of fiction? Do you prefer a hearty handshake (‘Call me Ishmael’), a more discursive line (‘All happy families are alike’), or a low-key manner (‘For a long time I used to go to bed early’)? What about this, for example?

After I became a prostitute, I had to deal with penises of every imaginable shape and size. Some large, others quite shrivelled and pendulous of testicle. Some blue-veined and reeking of Stilton, some miserly.

The narrator is a Jewish princess who took up her trade ‘when my job as script girl for a German-produced movie to be filmed in Venezuela fell through’; her pimp, Bob, had been a doctoral candidate in philosophy and American literature at the University of Massachusetts; their Avenue A walk-up is littered with empty syringes, douche bags, whips, garrottes, and packages of half-eaten junk food. ‘As far as his role went’, Bob ‘could have cared less’, but ‘I felt that ... I was growing intellectually as well as emotionally. Bob was both sadist and masochist to me; for him I was madonna and whore. Life with him was never dull.’

The lead story in Slaves of New York reads like a come-on for a quite different book, featuring a cast of hip mutants strong on style, heavy sex and drugs, and ‘caring less’. Such a book would no doubt be successful: more so, perhaps, than the one Tama Janowitz has written, which may explain why her publishers have pushed it out front. But seekers after cheap thrills are going to be disappointed. Sex and violence are almost eerily absent from Slaves, and so far from ‘caring less’, the characters who haunt its pages care obsessively about everything and nothing.

The bulk of the 22 stories are first-person narratives. Only in two of the others, ‘Snowball’ and ‘The New Acquaintances’, is the author on something like top form, while the rest range from slight jests (‘You and the Boss’, a swipe at the Bruce Springsteen myth) through stylised anecdotes (the two ‘Case Histories’) to a fable about a symbiotic relationship (‘Kurt and Natasha’). While there is much to admire here, the tone is often tiresomely arch and there is a sense of arbitrariness which disappears the moment Tama Janowitz slips into the fluid and treacherous mode where she is completely at home.

Most of these monologues are narrated by two characters, Eleanor and Marley Mantello, forming two discontinuous story-lines, like a soap-opera with half the episodes missing. We first meet Eleanor as one of the ‘slaves’ of the title. Art Buchwald tried to debunk Last Tango in Paris by joking that it was about the difficulties of finding accommodation to rent in the French capital. In Slaves that gag becomes a bottom-line reality. ‘There’re hundreds of women,’ Eleanor warns a girlfriend who is thinking of moving to New York. ‘And all the men are gay or are in the slave class themselves. Your only solution is to get rich, so you can get an apartment and then you can have your own slave. He would be poor but amenable.’ Eleanor is in her late twenties and living with Stash, an artist who is ‘authoritative and permissive, all at the same time. In other words, I can do whatever I want, as long as it’s something he approves of.’ But the alternative is bleak: an apartment on 14th Street at $1500 a month is ‘a real find’ even if you have to install the toilet and fixtures your-self. So for now Eleanor cooks, shops and cleans for Stash, walks his dog and deals with his moods; ‘sometimes I felt as if I were the sole member of the Bomb Squad: I had to defuse Stash.’ But it’s his apartment, and since the jewellery she makes – ‘shellacked sea horses, plastic James Bond-doll earrings’ – is not successful, her choice is between living with Stash on his terms and going home to her mother. ‘If ever I get some kind of job security and/or marital security, I’m going to join the feminist movement,’ Eleanor vows. In the end she gets a job and moves out, but finds herself ‘in the same mess, only in a different neighbourhood’.

Like Eleanor, Marley Mantello – a manic-depressive artist and self-styled ‘genius’ – is at an age when drawing cheques on the future becomes more difficult. But there the similarity ends. ‘I would have numbered myself in with the rest of humanity, only I was one step above it: by that I mean I was an artist, which redeemed me.’ Even less successful than Stash, Marley cherishes grandiose dreams of building a ‘Chapel of Jesus Christ as a Woman’ next to the Vatican, but meanwhile starves on canned Chef Boy-ar-dee sauce and is evicted from his unheated apartment. He is also tormented by anxiety – ‘Was I well enough to get up today? Did my stomach hurt? Was an unhealed cut on my finger a sign of cancer?’ – and chilly draughts from the ruthless jungle world he perceives all around. His only defence is his ego, which he keeps inflated to lunatic proportions while subjecting his fellow artists to a mordant line in criticism: ‘he was basically a smart guy, basically talented. But the basically that I’m speaking of is basically mediocre.’ His paintings mythologise reality – Ulysses as a failed Forties artist in a denim jacket and blue jeans, Penelope living in a Cape Cod beach house – and this vision extends itself to the people around him: ‘gods and pixies’ who have ‘forgotten their true selves and are out trying to make a buck and win influential friends’. His comic potential is heightened by a stilted and rhetorical tone of voice (‘Say not so!’) but Janowitz’s control ensures that the comedy never gets too safe. The concluding pages of ‘Life in the Pre-Cambrian Era’, for example, show a mind on the brink of madness. Marley’s work starts to sell, but our enduring image of him remains that fixed by Eleanor, watching his drunken behaviour at a baseball game: ‘out in left field, staggering around in circles’.

The way in which this image operates as both detail and metaphor is typical of the skill with which Tama Janowitz avoids the risk of anecdotalism. Slaves might easily have degenerated into a heap of gimmicky tales about wacky artist-folk, a Post-Modern Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, Biff cartoons filmed by Paul Morrissey. Despite the odd in-joke (one character ‘refused to travel above 14th Street, claiming that it led to mental decay’) this never looks likely to happen, thanks to Janowitz’s success in making her subject-matter thematic: her characters create a bewildering range of ‘art objects’, but first and foremost they create themselves. For this is a world where ‘essentialism’ is a dirty word, as the narrator of ‘Engagements’ discovers in her ‘Poetics of Gender’ colloquium. ‘Fixed identities’ are out: ‘to speak of identity is to speak of racism’; ‘post-gendered subjectivities’ and ‘the notion of the subject in progress’ are in. The same notion is expressed in more homely form by Eleanor’s mother, who ‘had always told me I could be anyone I chose’, while another character takes this to its logical conclusion: ‘everything that happens to you is because you want it to.’ Hence the greater stability of the first-person narratives in Slaves. In a world where you cannot ‘speak of identity’, the pronoun of identity is paradoxically privileged because of its very ambiguity: I say ‘I’, but so do you.

Sartre once told a questioner: ‘Obviously I do not mean that whenever I choose between a millefeuille and a chocolate éclair I choose in anguish.’ But that kitsch anguish is the air that these New Yorkers breathe. What to wear? Who to see? What to say? It’s easier to stay home:

I found fun very traumatising, difficult even. In some ways it was more fun not to have fun. To me, having fun was almost identical to feeling anxious. I thought I preferred to sit at home by myself, depressed.

Everything demands a choice. Even one’s appearance is not ‘fixed’. Told about a surgeon who will ‘trade work for paintings’, one artist replies: ‘In that case, I’d like to have my whole self redone. But not my hair.’ Nor is who you are in any way determined by what you do: ‘Most of the people I knew were doing one thing but considered themselves to be something else: all the waitresses I knew were really actresses, all the xeroxers ... were really novelists, all the receptionists were artists. There were enough examples of ... receptionists who went on to become famous artists that the receptionists felt it was okay to call themselves artists.’ Any talk of one’s background is strictly taboo:

‘I always meant to ask you – where are you from?’ I say. ‘Originally.’ ‘Where am I from?’ she says. ‘Where am I from? What kind of question is that?’ Is my question in terrible taste, or is she crazy?

Eleanor has no business asking such questions – she should be deciphering the signals people send about their choices. Unfortunately she is not very good at that, either. In ‘Patterns’ she falls victim to the stratagems of a gay fashion designer, who, typically, claims to dislike ‘any kind of game-playing’. Eleanor agrees: ‘ “I’ve never been able to figure out the rules.” Wilfredo said he could appreciate this quality in me.’ Even when it is clear that she has been used, Eleanor finds it hard to believe: ‘I felt so adamant that Wilfredo and I were meant to be together.’ A similar sense of rightness also deceives Cora in ‘Engagements’, when she learns that her dream apartment has been rented: ‘That was my apartment. It felt like my apartment.’ Feelings are not to be trusted out there in the semantic jungle.

Nevertheless, nostalgia for fixed roles and identities remains strong; the jungle bristles with animal life. Besides owning dogs which are treated with greater consideration than people, the characters in Slaves are compared with horses, llamas, beavers, panthers, salamanders, lizards, lions, gibbons, vixens, hornets, fawns, elephants, moose, orang-utangs, octopuses, gorillas, goats, rats, rattlesnakes, monkeys and mice in a frantic attempt to pin them down. As Eleanor reflects, ‘I had seen those National Geographic wild-life specials on TV ... animals met each other, performed some little courting dance, and mated for life. They knew exactly what to do; they relied on instinctive behaviour that had not given their parents and grandparents any problems either.’ For humans, on the other hand, even eating is problematic. Tama Janowitz conveys the full shuddering recoil from food we have all felt as children, that panicky cry: ‘You expect me to put that in my mouth?’ Japanese restaurateurs in particular will not be voting her Ms Popularity this year, and devotees of tinned ham should also stay away. Food is often offered aggressively, in a ritual of domination and submission, notably when Marley is obliged to eat a huge breakfast prepared by ‘plump collector Chuck Dade Dolger’, having been warned by his dealer Ginger that ‘he’s going to think you’re a wimp if you don’t eat very much.’ The story is called ‘Turkey Talk’: Chuck and Marley don’t talk turkey, they just gabble. But when Ginger offers a comment she is silenced: ‘These are men talking, Ginger.’ Marley doesn’t mind people criticising his work ‘because I had a simple way of dealing with it – I didn’t listen.’ The air is thick with messages, but everyone is transmitting and no one receiving. When Eleanor telephones home her mother interrupts her so that she can listen to two other voices on the line, inaudible to Eleanor, whose conversation is clearly more interesting to her than what her daughter has to say.

Despite the very real humour of the book, the underlying tone remains dark. This is not the bland affluent suburban West Coast world of The Serial, where anything goes and nothing matters. The machine these ghosts inhabit is a fruit machine: it pays out. At a party a stranger asks Eleanor about her relationship with Stash:

‘Is he rich?’ she said ...

‘No,’ I said.

‘Are you?’

‘No.’

‘Well, why would you go out with him?’ she said.

Eleanor has no answer to that, but later, when a drunken male friend tells her, ‘You shouldn’t act so desperate,’ she snaps back, ‘I consider life itself to be an act of desperation,’ and even the ebullient Marley is finally reduced to a numbed tone as he recounts his sister’s pointless death. Like Stevie Smith, Tama Janowitz is aware that ‘being comical does not ameliorate the desperation.’ The narrator of Novel on Yellow Paper refers to the ‘talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts that come’. Eleanor comments: ‘Well, once again I am silently rambling on. I have to reel myself back in like a fish.’ In both cases, the self-deprecation is an essential element in a perfectly achieved tone of voice. The opening lines of a book can be deceptive; what really matters is whether the writer can find and sustain the appropriate tone. There is some unevenness in this collection, but in the best stories Tama Janowitz passes that test triumphantly.

In ‘Who’s on first?’ an impromptu baseball game is effortlessly exploited as an extended metaphor for the oddly cosy, self-regarding world of Slaves: a world where everybody knows everybody, usually carnally; where adults behave like children and a five-year-old is the only one who knows what is going on; where nothing is predictable, not even failure. Eleanor wants to play, but is afraid of disgracing herself. When she arrives at the field she feels ‘like some actress who’s walked on to the movie set without her script. Obviously I don’t belong.’ She is tempted not to play, to make her escape: ‘But the thought of stepping out from under the carbon-arc lamps of this imaginary world, a place brighter than day, into the blackness that falls immediately beyond, fills me with terror.’