Tama Janowitz is a clever writer. She draws trendy New York pop-artsies to a T; these characters wear rubber dresses and feathered tutus to evening parties where no food is served till after 11. On birthdays they give each other Godzilla lighters, health food for dogs and Statue of Liberty hats made of foam.
But relentless wit can wear thin and is not enough to carry Janowitz's first collection of short stories, "Slaves of New York."
These New Yorkers are slaves to high rents, migratory relationships and, most significantly, their own contagious modishness. Most of Janowitz's characters are artists. A few stories enter other lives, from a graduate student in feminist criticism at Yale to a gallery owner who is terrorized by a sinister white cat named Snowball.
"Eleanor" narrates eight of her own engaging tales, Janowitz's most successful. She is a jewelry designer who makes creations from "small animal skulls . . . bones and forks . . . teeth and rhinestones and silver chunks." Yet Eleanor feels on the fringes of the New York art world she cruises with her boyfriend Stash, a graffiti artist who wears a ponytail down his back and "likes Coca-Cola, Cracker Jacks, and eats marshmallows out of the bag."
Eleanor's tone is chatty and wry, whether she is observing artists or her own family. Here she quotes her mother:
" 'I remember when your father and I divorced,' she said. 'I never thought I'd get over it. But after a few months, I thought to myself: Did I really want to go on making goat cheese for the rest of my life? Obviously I had just been playing a role. As soon as I saw the possibilities in life, I threw out all my natural cotton garments and got myself some fancy underwear. Then I met Stanley, who bought me a microwave and took me to Club Med.' "
Eleanor's distance from her hypermodern milieu allows her to observe: "Everyone I know is just playing at being a grown-up; I have to include myself." Her stories are funny, reflective pop soap operas; she is trying hard "to be a good sport" with her moody beau and oddball friends.
Unfortunately, no one else in this book is so attractive. Janowitz's cleverness tends to preside over character development. A pimp who once was a "double Ph.D. candidate in philosophy and American literature" is little more than his glib, offbeat description, just as is the man who approaches strange women and asks to treat them to a Tiffany's spree. Further, some of these characters are so hip and self-absorbed that it is difficult to care about them. These tales tend to read more like contemporary New York satire than flesh-and-blood fiction.
There is no doubt that Janowitz's imagination is vivid and that she can invent truly memorable situations and details. But on page after page, a cat flies out of a bathroom, or a canned ham explodes, or a woman falls ill after inadvertently drinking rat urine. These details are gratuitously bizarre. Many of the images travel from story to story -- empty fried chicken cartons, the dread feline Snowball -- and rather than uniting the collection, they seem like used tricks brought out in place of fresh pictures.
These characters unfortunately add up to little more than their quirky ways and jazzy clothes, as if Janowitz's strengths of wit and observational acuity get the better of her. Her description of a character biting into a luscious-looking piece of coconut cake could apply to her own stories:
"I eat a forkful. What a disappointment! The cake is illusory, I mean, it looks like a gooey, fluffy coconut cake, but some basic ingredient such as sugar or coconut has been left out."
Janowitz can be laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully sharp. Her party scenes, which rarely translate well in literature, are sparkling and zippy, from a loft-warming to the cast party for a zombie movie. If Janowitz used her powers to create characters who were less trendy, less self-absorbed, less ephemeral -- in short, characters with a little depth and heart -- the results could be well worth the effort of this talented, detail-minded writer.
The reviewer is a writer living in Boston.