Of all the big New York writers from the 1980s, Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis seem to have lingered longest in the cultural memory. However, there were plenty of other hyped novelists taking their seat at the table at the Odeon, and Tama Janowitz was one of them. Her book Slaves of New York, a collection of short stories/vignettes about life in the city, was as big of a deal as Less Than Zero and Bright Lights, Big City, and, like those books, made it to the big screen with limited success. Unlike the other two films, Slaves is worth finding; it’s a movie about the downtown arts scene in the ‘80s that’s also a Merchant-Ivory production starring Bernadette Peters. Unless you see it for yourself (available on Amazon Instant and Netflix Delayed), you’ll think I’m lying.
I loved Slaves of New York when I first read it as a teen. It was funny, had enough sex and drugs to seem like reading it was getting away from something, and Andy Warhol himself gave a blurb on the backcover with the insightful, “Great! Sizzling! Wow!” Now that four million years have passed, however, I wonder how the book stood up to Andy’s praise, or if it had become as dated as almost everything else I enjoyed when I was in middle school. Time is especially cruel to zeitgeist-y books, and when said book is about New York, a city that seems to grow a completely new skin every seven years, the chances of irrelevancy shoot up dramatically.
If Slaves of New York does seem a little faded, it’s not because it’s become dated but because it’s become timeless; unlike McInerney and Ellis, Janowitz was more witty than edgy. Since she never aimed to be shocking, the issue isn’t that the writing is no longer shocking--just that it is no longer culturally insightful. Her observations about the city’s real estate market, narcissistic artist class, and terrifying social scene were fresh then, but now seem like cute takes on what is generally accepted knowledge.
The book’s most recurring character, Eleanor, tells a friend who’s thinking of moving to New York and wondering if there are “available men” that, “There’re hundreds of women. They are out on the prowl. And all the men are gay or slaves themselves,” which is to say, they’re stuck in relationships with someone who holds the leash. Sure, you’ve heard the same wisdom regurgitated a million times since then in hundreds of rom coms and maybe every episode of Sex And The City, but not from characters that are this multi-dimentional or scenarios this surreal. The book is still enjoyable, but in the way a Nora Ephron book of essays is; it’s funny and smart, but the only thing it’s near the cutting edge of is a bagel.