[- Mid-life crisis
Slaves Of New York author Tama
J anowitz returns with a confused and confusing new novel, The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group. Tom Lappin tries to sort out the pizza from the severed heads.
Comes a time when the most precocious of
brat-packers has to face up to the truth that they’re W
not as young as they used to be. This year has already seen Jay Mclnerney embrace middle-age with his thoughtful and entertaining Brightness Falls. Bret Easton Ellis chose a different path. inventing a radical new genre in product placement psycho-porn with American Psycho. For Tama Janowitz, progression hasn’t been quite so easy.
Janowitz is still chained to her reputation as the author ofSIaves OfNew York, a collection of pithy sketches of the metropolitan 80$ zeitgeist that struck a chord with millions of readers who’d never so much as clapped eyes on Times Square but had a couple of Lou Reed albums.
Her third novel. The Male C ross-Dresser Support Group is a different beast entirely, following the adventures of a perpetually downtrodden office drudge in her 305, Pamela Trowel, as she tries to escape a life of domestic squalour and bizarre relationships. Somewhat questionably. the escape route appears in the form of a small child, Abhdul, who follows her home
from a pizza parlour, an idea Janowitz took from personal CXpCi’ichC.
’One day I went to the local pizza parlour.‘ she says, ‘and there was this huge woman who was eating fried chicken from a bag and all these little boys were watching her. This is life in New York. you just see these weird things and you don‘t know how to respond. When I saw these kids. I thought what ifone of these kids followed you home? That was like getting the corner of a jigsaw puzzle. the germ ofan idea.
‘I knew what Pamela was like. Like many of my friends she was single. she was living in New York. it was a struggle. We‘re pretty much living in a time where morals and manners and behaviour change so fast that nobody knows how to behave. In earlier times things were much more defined. If you know what the rules were it is much easier to get through your daily existence. ‘
If this all sounds like Janowitz has become rather more uptight than the cynical. Streetwise. hip
raconteur ofSlaves ()fNew York. then the book confirms it. Whichever way you read it The Male
Cross-Dresser Support Group is a confused and confusing novel. Janowitz sees it as a comedy,
although a scene where Pamela and Abhdul stop off on a highway to pick up a decaying. maggot-infested severed head wouldn‘t have been out of place in Easton Ellis‘s last work. ’l‘m sure in real life. it would be just horrendous.‘ says
Janowitz. ’but the truth is that these sort ofthings seem to happen all the time in New York. A
couple ofdays after I‘d written that scene. in the East Village somebody opened up this box and found two heads with moustaches. It turned out
that a burglar had stolen a doctor‘s car. and this
doctor had been transporting heads from one hospital to another for research purposes. The burglar had riﬂed the trunk. found the heads and
'1 , dumpedthemonthe street. Iguessthat‘sthe last at
car that burglar stole . . .‘
Get the impression. Janowitz‘s sense ofhumour is slightly. well. off-kilter'.’ She laments the fact that in America she is still regarded with great suspicion by the critics who have been queuing up to take her down a peg or two since Slaves ()fNew York. The impression is that she‘ll need to be in her 40s before they start taking her seriously.
‘I might have to wait awhile more than that,‘ she complains. ’I might have to wait until I‘m dead. I‘m still getting a tremendous amount of hostile criticism. It‘s not stopping me from writing. I‘m not writing to get rich and famous. it‘s because it‘s what I have to do. But it‘s just so tiring having to defend myself. Jeez I just wrote a book. I haven‘t committed a crime. All I can hope is to find a small audience in Europe. People over here read. over here they‘ve got a sense of humour.‘ Well. nice thought. but The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group definitely isn‘t the book that‘s going to tickle our collective funny bone.
The M ale (‘ross-Dresser Support Group is published by Picador ( £8. 99 )
Apocalypse, ' then and now
There’s nothing like the end of a century to provoke analysis and philosophy. Traditionally it is a time of trepidation: like Columbus’s crew sailing for the New World, we can’t be sure that we aren’t heading for the edge of the planet.
Writer and feminist historian Joan Smith cleverly taps into the i end-of-the-world madness in her brilliantly titled Femmes de Siecle, a collection of short stories written by women at the end of this and the last century. The specially commissioned contemporary writers include Candia Mchlliam. Emily Prager, Shena Mackay and Alice Thomas Ellis. The Victorian women were mostly published in the 1890s’ celebrated literary quarterly, The Yellow Book,
among them Evelyn Sharp, Edith Wharton, George Egerton and Ella D’Arcy Smith.
The juxtaposition yields surprising results. The Victorians were writing at a time when women could not vote, own property or receive university degrees. We have Equal Opportunities and our own tax return forms. It seems paradoxical, then, that the first obvious difference between then and now is
i that is, not ours.
; self-confidence.Theirself-confidence, Twittiest.
But then. if the earlier stories are
Many of the 19th century stories deal 1 gutsier, they were written by unusual
, specifically with relationships, '
. l snobbery and power games between
the sexes. Ella D’Arcy Smith is
remniscent of Austen and Dorothy Parker in herwickedly funny At Twickenham, whose protagonist Minnie Corbett ‘had won her husband by lifting to his a pair of blankly beautiful eyes, and it did not seem to her requisite to give greater exertion to the winning of minor successes’. Parodist Ada Leverson’s The Quest of Sorrow is the moral of a young man who cannot summon up the poetic anguish fashionable in young men of the time: ‘I thirsted forsalttears; I longed to clasp Sorrow in my arms and press her pale lips to mine.’
20th century writers are bland, and somehow neurotic, in comparison. McWilliam and Ellis are forgettable,
Mackay heavy, Brigid Brophy typically whimsical. Emily Prager and Lynne Truss—who is writing fiction for the
2 first time — are the strongest and
; women, ones who were brave enough
: to be pillioried as feminists, and in
Egerton’s case an ‘erotomaniac’.
’ Evelyn Sharp was imprisoned, along
' with other Suffragettes, in 1911. Olive Schreiner was the author of the seminal work Women and Labor. Her futuristic story, Three Dreams in 3 Desert, prophesises a new century in which ‘brave women and brave men’ walk into a glowing future hand in hand.
Joan Smith admits that the contemporary stories are ‘sombre', written from slump-mode rather than the battling frontier of women’s suffrage. But then, she says, ’popular culture is as misogynist as ever, and glaring inequalities continue to exist between men and women’. Femmes de Siecle is tangible evidence of our contemporary demoralisation. (Miranda France)
Femmes de Siecle is published by l Chatto and Windus at £11 .99
The List 6— 19 November 1992 71