A CANNIBAL IN MANHATTAN By Tama Janowitz Crown. 287 pp. $17.95
Her new publisher promotes this third novel by the celebrated Tama Janowitz as a work of style and wit, as a "modern-day 'Candide,' " no less. This would be of no consequence to anyone but the ghost of Voltaire except that with Janowitz, promotion is all. It was her energetic publicity campaign on behalf of "Slaves of New York" that made her the darling of the new bohemia, and presumably it is publicity that will carry the day for "A Cannibal in Manhattan."
It had better, for there's nothing else to recommend the book, least of all style or wit. Janowitz may be the high priestess of literary punk, but you'd never know it from this feeble, childish extrusion. "A Cannibal in Manhattan" is utterly devoid of originality, energy, thematic purpose, charm -- you name it, "A Cannibal in Manhattan" hasn't got it. Were it not adorned with Janowitz's name it surely would have gone without a publisher; but in the publicity game, the brand name counts for more than the product.
And "product" is certainly the word for "A Cannibal in Manhattan," which clearly was manufactured rather than inspired. Everything about it is perfunctory: It purports to be satire, but is neither amusing nor perceptive; it strives for fantasy, but is neither inventive nor surprising; it seeks to move the reader, but is neither convincing nor sympathetic. That it should give pleasure to anyone is quite beyond imagination.
The cannibal of the title, and narrator of the novel, is named Mgungu Yabba Mgungu; this is supposed to be funny. He lives in the land of New Burnt Norton and is a member of a tribe called the Lesser Pimbas; so is this. He is 55 years old and has three wives and many children, but is not content:
"All this time, for nearly two years, I had been saying to myself, I am tired of being a savage ... I was tired and disgusted of working out in the garden every day with a primitive digging tool and only having one or two movies to play over and over again at night using as a generator a wheelless bicycle Oola pedaled frantically for all she was worth, breasts flying in two directions at once, and this in order to keep burning in the dark the flickering picture of the Marx Brothers running in and out of the bedroom."
So Mgungu is ready to roll when a wealthy young New Yorker named Maria Fishburn shows up and invites him to come with her to Manhattan. She tells him that "to me you are the noble savage, and I am the first female Robinson Crusoe," and that "I'd like to think of you as my Man Friday." Why he agrees to this rather demeaning relationship is never made precisely clear -- much in "A Cannibal in Manhattan" is never made precisely clear -- but in any case off he goes, to sample the mysterious pleasures of the Big Apple.
It is at this point that we are supposed to take the novel as satire, but all we're actually given is ham-handed slapstick and juvenilia. Mgungu is put up at the midtown Holiday Inn and trotted through the run of New York's mill: a ride with an opinionated cabby, high jinks at a rock club, down and out on the Bowery, and dealings with a cultural entrepreneur whose International Dance Festival is the ostensible reason why he has been brought to New York.
But the novel's clumsy attempts at levity are further benumbed by Janowitz's incomprehensible decision to turn melodramatic. Mgungu marries Maria (the marriage, in this oddly priggish novel, is never consummated), who suddenly disappears. One thing leads to another, as one thing usually does, but none of it is interesting, and much of it is more than faintly repellent. Suffice it to say that Mgungu comes to an unhappy end; but at least it is an end, and thank heaven for that.
Mgungu calls himself "a remnant of a prehistoric race, watching with dull and uncomprehending eyes the busy and inexplicable activities of this civilization," which presumably is what the novel aims to be about. But it falls far short, not merely because its social commentary is so stale but because Mgungu is a wholly improbable narrator; if you can believe that a fellow just removed from the jungle can make such comments as "The dwarf, removed from his phobia or angst, managed to calm down at once," then you can believe anything.
The real trouble with "A Cannibal in Manhattan" is that it's a lazy and mechanical effort. From time to time Janowitz gives evidence of talent -- she is at least capable of writing a clean, grammatical sentence -- but she gives no sign of being sufficiently interested in her subject or characters to bring any of them to life. Having been the beneficiary of abundant publicity in the past, perhaps she expects it to come to her rescue now. But anyone who buys the novel because its author has a smidgen of celebrity has been taken for a ride.