Book: Slaves of New York
Author: Tama Janowitz (can’t find a blog or twitter account she runs)
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not odd, per se, but it is a book very important to me and I just want to discuss it here.
Availability: Initially published in 1986, I am discussing a much later Washington Square Press Contemporary Classics version. You can get a copy here:
Disclaimer: This is the longest piece I’ve ever written for online consumption and I am copping to the fact now that this is a length wholly unsuitable for this format. This is a very self-indulgent thing for me to do, but I’ve wanted to write about Eleanor for a while. This is long, but it’s also my love letter to one of my favorite characters in modern literature. I suspect soon I will be writing a similar entry for Donna Tartt’s Richard Papen, or Fay Weldon’s Esther Wells. I will understand completely if no one reads this, though I hope you will, and promise that the third installment will be a much more online-friendly length.
Comments: The second part of my three-part discussion of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York is focusing on Eleanor, the ostensible heroine of this themed short story collection. Three characters in this book have resonated with me at different times in my life and I find my changing attitudes towards these characters interesting (and hopefully others will as well). The first installment discussed Cora, a depressive young woman whose relationship with a self-absorbed, obsessive and ultimately very weak man reminded me of myself and the people I attracted as a young woman. My upcoming discussion of Marley will focus on his delusional faith in his own talent and how irritating he was to me when I was young and how refreshing he is to me now. This discussion of Eleanor is going to look at her neuroses, her logical fears, and how she is an excellent representation how it felt to be a very specific young woman in this particular time and place in America.
Eleanor is portrayed in eight short stories. Since I am discussing Eleanor as a whole rather then the individual stories, I’m numbering the stories and will use those numbers in quotes to show which stories the quotes come from. You will find the numbered list at the end of this discussion.
Here’s a quick summary of Eleanor’s life as told in these stories: Eleanor lives in New York City with her artist boyfriend, Stash. She lives in Stash’s apartment, a one-room, seven-story walk-up, and has little money of her own. She wants to design jewelry but her ideas are not terribly unique at first and the drama of living with Stash makes it very hard for her to concentrate on her work, though she has many excuses to explain her failures. Stash is difficult to live with and is not a good boyfriend, though like Cora’s Ray, one does not hate him. He’s got his good points and bad. He and Eleanor spend a couple of years irritating the hell out of each other, eventually separating. Eleanor begins to slowly become the person she thinks she should be but even at the end she is trying to figure out how to live her life without engaging in relentless self-improvement. But as she has a short-lived rebound relationship and throws a party on a whim, you leave the collection with hope that Eleanor is going to stop spinning her wheels in her attempts to be someone she is not and placating men in an attempt to create stability in her life.
I’m a well-known neurotic and I’ve never really given much thought as to how I’ve turned out this way. I suspect it’s a nervous nature combined with the lasting effects of a less than ideal childhood. It is my neurotic nature that caused me to appreciate Eleanor even when I was a teen and had no real idea what adult life would be like. Eleanor is a character I would like to grab at the shoulders and shake, but she’s largely likeable even in the worst of her neuroses. I find my affinity for Eleanor particularly interesting because I had to grow into the character. I was too young to wholly get her the first time I read her stories. Then I experienced a slice of her life. Then I grew out of her, and can look at her and the person I used to be with fondness tinged with a hint of frustration.
Eleanor is a young woman whose neurosis is an artifact of an interesting time in American life. Eleanor’s story takes place in the early to mid 1980s, a time wherein women found themselves with many choices to make. Second wave feminism had sought to end or equalize various inequalities and one of the end results of that activism was the first generation of young women whose lives didn’t follow a prescribed historical script. Such a time should have been very heady for Eleanor and girls like her (and me). But like so many elements of freedom, the 1970s – 1980s was a time for women that looked better on paper than its actual execution.
With all the choices suddenly available for women, emphasis was made on the choices themselves rather than the need to choose. So many women didn’t choose – they saw the vista open before them and decided to try to do everything and ended up trying to balance all of their choices, creating the 1980s Superwoman caricature, who sought a career, a fulfilling romantic relationship, a couple of kids, a nice home, a bevy of interesting friends, and an array of hobbies. In the course of trying to do it all, women forgot that men, whose choices they wanted access to try on for size, themselves could not do it all. They had wives to handle everything outside of the workplace and some of the women, faced with a life quite different than their mothers’, swallowed a bitter pill of lower pay, household stress, unhappy children and strained marriages. Yet some women still needed to present a perfect face to all who looked upon them, or needed to pretend to themselves that their ideal life was the life they were living.
I understand how that happened. When you suddenly have access, it’s hard to settle on one role. When you fail to decide and try to do it all, knowing all the while that you have societal forces looking down on you, waiting to see you fail, you want to appear as close to perfect as possible. Neurosis is often caused by the chasms between our real and idealized selves and I think that chasm accounts for a lot of Eleanor’s neuroses. Eleanor would have been neurotic no matter what time in history she lived, but living in New York in the late 70s and early 80s didn’t help, what with liberal mores regarding feminist expectations and rents that were beginning to soar and price out struggling artists. The days of Patti Smith living and creating on a shoestring were over but only those at the bottom, like Eleanor, really saw the financial cultural shift. All those shifts created various neuroses that manifest in different ways as Eleanor navigates the world she finds herself in.
Eleanor, a Slave of New York
Eleanor ends up living with her artist boyfriend, Stash, because she found herself unable to pay rent at her apartment, and faced moving away entirely.
I had a little apartment in a brownstone on the Upper West Side, but it was too expensive, and there were absolutely no inexpensive apartments to be found. Besides, things weren’t going all that smoothly for me. I mean, I wasn’t exactly earning any money. I thought I’d just move to New York and sell my jewelry – I worked in rubber, shellacked sea horses, plastic James Bond-doll earrings – but it turned out a lot of other girls had already beaten me to it. So it was during this time that I gave up and told Stashua I was going home to live with my mother. Stash and I had been dating for six months. That was when Stash said we could try living together. (1)
Eleanor and Stash didn’t join households because they loved each other, or because they had a grand plan for life together. Their domestic arrangement came about as a last resort to be able to keep seeing each other. Also note that Eleanor’s career as a jewelry maker wasn’t particularly well-planned. This will come up again when we look at Eleanor’s work.
So Eleanor decides to live with Stash rather than move back in with her mother. May not be the best way to begin a live-in relationship but with the right person it can work. And because this story wherein Eleanor discusses the hows and whys of her situation is our introduction to her, we don’t know that Eleanor often operates on two different levels of self-awareness. In the beginning of this story, it seems like Eleanor is okay with her role in her relationship.
Stash had been living in a large, one-room apartment in the Village for ten years but he still had boxes full of crap left over from his divorce approximately six years earlier. He gets tense about Eleanor using any of his space, like leaving cosmetics on the back of the toilet and he’s the kind of guy who goes off on rants about the differences between antiperspirants and deodorants. He creates Warhol rip-off style paintings, using crappy Hanna Barbara characters and placing them in serious and biblical contexts. He’s not my cup of tea but one woman’s bleah is another woman’s hero and initially Eleanor seems okay with everything.
I’m getting used to it. In the morning I clean up some, I walk his Dalmatian, Andrew, then I come back and cook Stash two poached eggs, raisin tea biscuits, coffee with three spoons of sugar. Usually around this time of day, the doorman buzzes on the intercom and I have to go down to pick up a package, or run to the store for more cigarettes, whatever. Then Stash goes off to work. He’s an artist, he works for himself, so he doesn’t have to go in until late, except recently he’s been out of the house by ten, since he’s nervous about getting ready for his show coming up soon at his gallery on Fifty-seventh Street.
I watch a few soap operas and have a second cup. Then usually I start to plan the evening dinner. I’ll make, let’s say, Cornish game hen with orange glaze, curried rice, asparagus, or it could be fettuccini Alfredo with garlic bread and argula salad. Nothing too fancy. (1)
As housewife myself, none of this seems overwhelming – I raised my eyebrows at the part about “a few soap operas” – but I did find it amusing that Eleanor felt her dinner preparations were no big deal. I’m a pretty involved home cook, preparing meals for an easy-going man who’s pretty much happy with any fare put before him, and the two meals Eleanor mentions are pretty involved and she’s cooking for grumpy man. But perhaps she likes cooking. Maybe this is okay with her.
Except it’s not. Not really. Eleanor shows her hand when she is talking to her friend, Abby. Abby wants to leave her boyfriend in Boston because she’s bored with him. She wants to move back in with a jerky-ex in New York and stay with him until she finds someone better. Eleanor tries to set her straight and in doing so she reveals her true feelings about her life with Stash.
I said, “Abby, don’t do it. In the old days, marriages were arranged by the parents, and maybe you ended up with a jerk but at least you have the security of marriage, no one could dump you out on the street. In today’s world, it’s the slave system. If you live with this guy in New York, you’ll be the slave.”
“Well,” she said, “I’m used to Roger cooking for me. Would I have to cook for Bruce?”
She already knew all about my dinner menus, the frantic daily preparations. “Yes,” I said. “You’d have to cook for Bruce. What are you going to do if you two have a fight and he tells you to leave? With your salary, you’ll never be able to find an apartment.”
“I know Bruce is a creep,” she said. “But I thought I’d be with him while I looked for someone else.” (1)
Frantic daily preparations.
Why is she frantic? Well, because not everyone who goes to New York to be the next big thing is going to make it and living with Stash is hard. He’s difficult to be around. Her ideas for jewelry aren’t that fresh and Eleanor spends most of her time appeasing Stash, leaving her with little emotional energy to create and to hone her talents. She’s also somewhat lazy, as we’ll find out, and her natural tendency towards torpor is exacerbated by the emotional difficulties she faces living with Stash. She finds it hard even to make friends. She tries to establish a friendship with a man who is a writer and it fails spectacularly. It’s hard to know how aboveboard Eleanor was in her attempt to be just friends with Mikell, but Mikell is the boyfriend of one of the few successful women in the art world and he’s the slave in his relationship. If Eleanor saw him as a means of moving on, she is quickly disabused of that notion. When Stash sees an inscription from Mikell in a book he gave Eleanor, he loses his mind. He punishes Eleanor for a week for this transgression, for speaking to another man. And his prolonged tantrum terrifies Eleanor.
Before the tantrum, Eleanor says:
Well, it’s his apartment, and if we have a fight or something I sometimes get this panicky feeling: Where the hell am I going to go? (1)
How the hell did this happen? This is the 1980s, not the 1950s. Why can’t Eleanor just leave? She’s got a part-time job. Why not just get another job, get her own place, and design jewelry in her off-time? Of course, New York was expensive, even then, but in one of the most liberal places in 1980s America, how did Eleanor end up a servile girlfriend cooking and appeasing in the hopes of keeping a roof over her head? There are a lot of reasons, and some of them may seem like a surprising indictment of second wave feminism, surprising in that it is coming from a feminist liberal like me.
Eleanor absolutely hated living with Stash. When she spoke honestly to people who were outside Stash’s circles, she told an even clearer story, a story that becomes worse as the book progresses. Here she is talking to Mikell:
…my dream was that someday I would get some bucks and then maybe I could move out. I said I got along all right with Stash, but that he never wanted to have anyone over, we had no couch, just a bed, all his stuff was all over the place, it hadn’t been painted in ten years, and my dream was to have a real apartment, maybe with a little terrace, geraniums, and then I’d have dinner parties for eight or ten every once in a while. (1)
On any level does this way of life seem better than living in an apartment with a couple of other women, working all day and pursuing art on the side?
It’s Orwellian, in a way, how freedom became a prison, as internally-driven perfectionism hemmed in women in the place of more conservative forces. Some women experienced freedom of choice in their lives as a frantic scramble to be everything to everyone. And for many women that desire to be perfect, to achieve a multi-faceted idealized version of femininity, manifested in neurosis. Eleanor is an example of that neurosis, a cultural nervousness inherited by daughters of the second wave. Eleanor didn’t have many examples of women who achieved success in the new paradigm and, even worse, the new paradigm took away from women the basis of security – marriage. For every woman who saw marriage as a prison, others realized that marriage prevented women from being left homeless and forsaken at the end of relationships, especially if they had taken a traditional role in the relationship – homemaking instead of earning money. This was a particular problem since women then certainly didn’t have the earning power of men and women who lived with men without the benefit of marriage were more likely to feel trapped than women who knew they had earned a part of a communal household income through the legalities of marriage. They knew they wouldn’t have to start over from scratch every time a relationship failed. Eleanor is at the bottom and leaving Stash will push her even lower.
Eleanor felt picked apart by Stash’s criticisms but the inner voice that told her she was unloveable, untalented and generally without merit plagued her as much. Her neurotic need to be different than her parents, to be famous and wealthy, caused her to try to achieve goals that in her heart she never cared much about. Her mother warned her about moving to New York but Eleanor was trying to draw a line between the life her mother lived and the life she wanted so she made a feckless decision to come to a large city with little money in the hopes she could make it on talent and ambition. But Eleanor was tethered between two worlds, influenced by different cultural demands. So many young women were like Eleanor – believing the myth of the Superwoman but having no examples to follow. When your mother lived a traditional life, her advice doesn’t have resonance – how would she know anything about living alone in New York? But not having a clear path may also stem from the fact that Eleanor ultimately didn’t want much of what she had available to her.
She was like Cora in that regard except Cora knew she didn’t want what everyone else wanted. Eleanor stuffed down what she wanted from life and kept trying on roles until the misery of it all became too much. So many people are like this – I was for a long time. Perhaps part of wanting to retreat to the desert and live a close-to-the-bone life was a subconscious way of avoiding all the choices that would come with being a modern woman. No marriage, no kids, no giving up large chunks of my youth as I pulled myself up into a career path. No selecting counter tops and new and improved appliances. No worries about school districts or finding time for a girls’ night out. Dropping out and avoiding would have prevented me from spinning my wheels like Eleanor, and I did end up spinning my wheels for far too long.
But at least I always knew I could afford rent as I walked in circles.
In the book in several places, Eleanor reveals that part of her reason for staying with Stash is purely animal – she clearly likes how he looks. He’s big, imposing, often frightening to other people at first glance. She describes him as looking like a Viking Berserker. But even as she likes what Stash brings physically to the table, she loathes how she must bend to his will.
Stash has a charismatic personality: he’s 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. Or perhaps it’s true, what he says, I need his approval because I’m willfully insecure, a wimp with a will to be one. If I ever get some kind of job security and/or marital security, I’m going to join the feminist movement. (3)
She’s not a wimp and she knows it. She’s just hemmed in between Jane Austen and Gloria Steinem and has difficulty knowing what to do. But note this: Once she has the security of women like her mother – either money or marriage, Eleanor will become a feminist. It’s real easy to be a feminist when the bills are paid.
Every woman who has ever lived has spent time hating her body. It’s the human condition and we can blame it on the media and the patriarchy and all sorts of boogey-men but it is what it is and on some level there is no avoiding it. Had we all been raised in Eden without original sin plaguing us, two women would still stand side by side and compare themselves to each other. So that Eleanor finds herself lacking is nothing new, even as she lived in a time when women supposedly took control of their bodies.
It’s all clear in retrospect, but if you look at the end of sixties radicalism as it merged into eighties-women finding their way in a new world, perfectionism was the basis of all new female roles. Women’s bodies have shown political and social influences since we stopped being hairy apes, so that’s nothing new either. Our clothes, hair, cosmetics – often demeaned as frivolous – are relics of the times we live in. Even our body shapes change according to fluctuating tastes. Look at the difference in female bodies from the seventies into the nineties. It wasn’t enough to be thin – women needed to be toned. No more girdles – we got rid of that uncomfortable artifact (hahaha, we’ll never be rid of “shapewear”, fuck Spanx, seriously). But if you needed a flat stomach after childbirth and couldn’t rely on spandex to rein yourself in, you turned to aerobics to sculpt yourself. Aerobics may be healthier and exercise is great but it requires time in already busy schedules. Women found themselves needing to be titans of industries (or at least managers or professional leaders), supportive wives, involved mothers, amazing friends, and they needed to be all those things while having buns of steel.
Eleanor is struggling in the mores of the early eighties, a time of aerobics classes, where squeaky voiced singers urged us to “get physical.” Eleanor wants to be a healthy, toned woman but it’s not in her nature. Much of what is expected of her physically is not in her nature.
The elevator was broken and we had to walk up seven flights. I’m not in such great shape. Believe me, I’d like to be one of those women with all the muscles, but frankly I don’t like the idea of doing all that work. Once I took an aerobics class — I thought it would give me more energy— but every day I had to come home after class and sleep for a couple of hours. (4)
This comes up a lot for Eleanor and at times I felt like Eleanor would have been so much happier had she been a Jane Austen heroine. She was cut out for a far slower, more leisurely life and would have tolerated a whale bone corset if it meant she wasn’t expected to race about in a leotard, proving her cardiovascular fitness.
Eleanor compares herself to other women quite often, and always finds herself lacking. When she goes to a dinner honoring artists, one of whom is Stash, she feels dowdy and plain.
I was seated next to a girl wearing a rubber dress; it looked like a coat of latex paint. The sign in front of her plate said SAMANTHA BINGHAMPTON, and every two seconds one of the photographers would come and snap her picture. She had wild black hair (maybe a wig) and a long skinny neck, which was either very elegant or goosey – I couldn’t decide. So much for my one evening outfit of sequined top and black velvet skirt – it was nothing compared to what Rubbermaid had on. I could have strangled her. (4)
Eleanor’s ideal self will never be realized and it’s easy to look at this and find her bitchy criticism of Samantha as just the result of someone demeaning that which she wants and cannot have. But that doesn’t hold up for Eleanor because one of her struggles is that she simply does not want what the culture tells her to want. She is trying to achieve and obtain status and belongings that don’t really interest her. This will become clearer in this discussion but Eleanor is rebelling against her parents’ more simple life and rebellion has led her to this dinner table with a woman she thinks she should want to be while finding the whole thing distasteful.
Eleanor exists in a place where even as women are trying to achieve status based on talent they are also exhibiting feminine competition via their bodies. Here’s more of Eleanor’s conversation as she dissuades her friend from coming to New York, half-cocked, with no real plan to support herself (just like Eleanor years before).
“Are these women, the ones that are prowling – are they attractive?” Abby said.
I could tell she hadn’t been listening. “Abby,” I said. “It’s New York. They have hundred-and-seventy-dollar haircuts and wear leather belts with sterling silver buckles.”
“Oh,” she said. “How are things otherwise?” (1)
In a place where it is expensive to be a woman and the competition is sleek, monied and on the prowl, being broke and outlandish can make any woman seem frumpy. Eleanor cannot afford an apartment of her own – she certainly cannot afford silver belt buckles. And we later learn she gets her hair trimmed for ten bucks. She understands the economics of feminine appeal and her social bank balance doesn’t stand a chance if Stash tires of her.
But Eleanor’s issues with her physical self cross over from the basic “I am a frump compared to other women” into a sort of science fiction desire to transcend the human physical experiences of being female. Eleanor feels like she would be happier if she was not a woman.
You wish women’s styles would change and that hairy legs on women would become a new trend. Somebody made a big mistake when they assigned you to a female sex role; you’ll never get over feeling like a female impersonator. (2)
I love this hackneyed passage because Eleanor often feels alienated from what she perceives as her gender role, contrasted to Cora who wanted to be a part of a women’s studies programs but couldn’t wrap her mind around the dogma that was supposed to liberate women from specific, time-honored roles. But even as Eleanor lives in this bohemian stage play, filled with unusual people doing unusual things, she still feels the compulsion to shave and engage in feminine grooming. Why? Well, that idealized female vision. Women then, as well as now, understand that you can achieve everything a man can but if you stop shaving your armpits you’re basically still a loser at life. What many second-wavers – Betty Friedan call your office – did not understand was that shedding the corset and stockings didn’t mean women no longer needed to obtain the shape and texture such garments offered. Rather, they had to physically alter themselves. And Eleanor hates it.
Eleanor has issues as a female but her desperation shows itself clearly when she is in a state of physical misery. After she gets terribly sunburned on a hellish vacation in Haiti, Eleanor longs to transcend the female. It’s not just that she cannot see herself as a chic woman on holiday – being female at all is becoming too much for her.
You had so wanted to look glamorous, garbed in resort wear and with a dusky tan. You are not that kind of person. You now have skin like fried chicken, extra crispy.
“You know what?” you say to your boyfriend. He is fondling a chunk of coral, a large, smooth white object shaped like a pipe. The beach is covered with such pieces. “I’ve decided I’m tired of being female.”
“Oh, I feel like a female impersonator. All these hormones crashing around have nothing to do with me. It’s like a facade. I’d much rather be a man. Would you still go out with me then?”
“You’re hallucinating,” your boyfriend says. “Sun poisoning.” (2)
But before she gets burned, before she muses about how much she wants to be a man, Eleanor finds herself wishing she could be a sort of brain in a jar, a quasi-transhumanist desire to be more than a soul in a meat suit.
You can’t wait for the day when humankind is so far evolved that bodies are completely unnecessary and people are nothing but large, flabby gray brains in Plexiglas boxes. Then maybe you’ll be appreciated for yourself. As it is, your body has evolved far past the mainstream of society already. You’ve never been interested in physical exercise. Your highly developed mind inhabits a braincase balanced on top of a large, larval body with feeble, antennalike arms and legs. (2)
So is Eleanor an early transhumanist? Not really. The “highly developed mind” part aside, this is a manifestation of depression, the logical result of experiencing the constant tension caused when one’s perfectionist ideals cannot measure up to reality. At the beginning of the story, Eleanor complains about the exhausting nature of getting ready to travel, that she finds it hard enough to relax at all and that travel makes it even harder for her to relax. She doesn’t want to go to Haiti and once there the vacation is a hellscape. But she knows that she should be pleased to be with a man who takes her places. Other people dream of travel, of chic vacations. Eleanor just wants to stay at home and when she goes on vacation she ends up on a burnt island with terrible food and absolutely nothing to do. A brain in a jar doesn’t have to go on vacation and until everyone else is a brain in a jar, Eleanor tells herself she has to engage in human activity that bores and tires her.
At first, when I read this passage, I thought that Eleanor had a terrible vision of herself. A larval body, spindly arms and legs. Doesn’t sound good, does it? But look at how she expresses it – she has evolved past mainstream society. She feels like she is superior to those around her but still feels as if she must follow their rules, especially since she relies on Stash for room and board. That’s a difficult and strange position to be in – to feel superior while in the role of the supplicant. And such tension between personal perception and actual experience results in plenty of neuroses, comedic nervousness about her body and the bodies of those she compares herself to.
But then again, she doesn’t feel superior all the time. Here she is, comparing herself to a woman she knows Stash is developing an attraction to.
Daria seems so perfect, in her Nehru jacket, unwrinkled, a dab of gold gloss on her lips, her large Op Art earrings dangling from clean ears. By comparison – though it’s true I’m much skinnier – I feel sooty, a Dickensian waif with hunched shoulders and a greasy sweatshirt. Maybe I’m exaggerating. Of course, probably if we could have switched brains for a minute, I probably would find that she feels like a big galoot next to delicate me. Well, once again I am silently rambling on. I have to reel myself back in like a fish. (5)
This inner conversation, this relentless jabbering, goes on in the head of every female neurotic. But even as I tend to cut Eleanor slack, the fact is that while she is attractive she’s also sort of a mess. She speaks often about how Stash leaves the house in dirty clothes, she has sloppy habits, and if she’s mentioning that Daria’s ears are clean, that speaks poorly for her own appearance. Maybe she is greasy and unkempt. I tend to think so because when was the last time you noticed whether or not the ears of a grown woman were clean in comparison to your own. Part of Eleanor’s war with her body may be that she doesn’t enjoy taking care of it beyond taking lots of naps.
But among all these comparisons and wishes for a transhumanist future, Eleanor engages in the old, often Victorian habit, of using illness as a means of keeping Stash’s attention. Eleanor begins to suffer from spells of dizziness that leave her completely immobilized. While they only ever occurred when Stash was present (and when he was showing attention to Daria), I don’t think Eleanor was malingering. While they may have been psychosomatic dizzy spells, she never once indicates that the dizzy spells were something she was engaging in to get attention. Eleanor is a pretty reliable and truthful narrator – she talks a lot and takes a lot of detours but she eventually tells you the whole story. However, when she goes to the doctor and gets an answer that isn’t very dramatic – low blood pressure in clubs can cause women to get dizzy – she contemplates what she will tell Stash.
…on the subway ride home, I do wish I had something more critical to tell Stash: that I have anemia, pleurisy, an electrolyte imbalance. I’d like to inform him that shortly I’ll be reduced to life in a wheelchair, that I’m counting on him to push me across the street. I’m disappointed that Dr. Bartholdi dismissed me so abruptly, without even trying to get my phone number. I could have given him Daria’s; that might have taken care of her for a while. (5)
Oh god, the dream of the invalid. What better way is there to show a relationship is doomed? Well, we’ll find out shortly there is an even better measure for a dying relationship. Stash, comes home very late that night after, he says, he helps Daria handle her dog dying. Eleanor, whose jealousy of Daria is very pronounced by this point, downshifts into deceit.
When Stash finally comes home, Eleanor is so angry she is imagining his funeral – something she does a lot in this chapter – so she throws out the only thing she thinks will upset Stash in turn.
I imagine the hands on my wristwatch stopping, then turning backward. I see myself dressed in black, my face very white, a red rose clutched in one frozen hand. I change the red rose to a lavender one. “It was weird,” I say. “He spent hours examining my breasts.”
“What?” Stash says. “Report him! What do your breasts have to do with fainting?” I’ve gotten to him. He’s indignant and furiously snatches a hunk of cheese from some hidden recess inside the fridge. I watch him sink his teeth into it; I want to tell him to use a knife, but I don’t say it.
“He had to listen to my heart,” I answer at last. (5)
This is skeevey and is something I really wish women as a whole would stop doing – creating a portrait of victimization to redirect male attention to themselves or to get a reaction. Eleanor seriously misjudged this ruse. Eleanor found the doctor who examined her very attractive but even he didn’t really pay her much attention – he just listened to her heart and ordered blood tests and sent her on her way. Eleanor is fulfilling two different fantasies in telling this to Stash: she gets to live a scenario wherein a hot doctor couldn’t keep his hands off her and she gets to imply to Stash that she is attractive enough to get sexual attention from that hot doctor. Had Stash been the neanderthal she at times portrayed him, he could have become enraged and beat the doctor up or worse.
But even as he denies interest in Daria, his interest in Eleanor is waning – when you tell your boyfriend that a doctor manhandled your breasts and his reply is to eat cheese, it’s a sign the relationship is on its way out. But Eleanor’s willingness to use her body in this manner – to create a scenario of overwhelming sexiness that could be misinterpreted as sexual harassment, is just another page in how she views herself. She may think she has weak appendages and is grimy and Dickensian, but she also is certain she has a certain appeal or she wouldn’t have tried such a ruse in the first place. And she knows that in the absence of marriage, waning sexual interest in her means Stash can leave at any time. If he is jealous of her, or if he feels he needs to take care of her because she is ill, she is safe, at least for a while.
Eleanor the Adult
Eleanor has a very limited perception of what it means to be an adult. The idea of the artist as a person not fitting into the predominant culture of the grown-up is nothing new but often it is presented as a means of explaining a specific sense of youthfulness or vague sense of not liking the way some adults behave. Eleanor seems to believe that there is a wall between children and adults that one must scale in order to become an adult. She bases her opinions of adulthood on the roles her parents engaged in and the way she is separate from the culture she lives in.
Where I grew up, in South Carolina, social graces didn’t count. Max, my father, had a mail-order gardening business. We raised peonies, daffodils, daylilies, hyacinths, iris, all kinds of bulbs and perennials. For my fourteenth birthday Max named a new variety of pink camellia after me. I wasn’t thrilled – I really wanted a subscription to Seventeen – but I kept my mouth shut. Max also taught horticulture at the local university part-time. When we children came home from school, everyone had a job to do. The stove was full of baked potatoes and that’s what we’d have – baked potatoes with yogurt and goat cheese. My mother raised angora goats, she sold the wool to weavers across the country. My parents had made a choice: they would remain poor but live off the land, in a lifestyle unaffected by the progressively commercial and false world around them. It was taken for granted we would all work hard. In other words, we didn’t have a TV set.
Well, I also had to make a choice: I would rebel against my parents and join the rat race. I wanted things, and the things I wanted weren’t inexpensive. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line I got sidetracked. For one thing, I had never, in my wackiest dream, imagined that I would grow up to be a poor person. (4)
This belief that she departed from her parents’ back to the land, hippie lifestyle because she wanted things is false and she knows it. She expresses frequently how she really just doesn’t care about the things other people consider important, and with surprising clarity understands how much time she spends spinning her wheels.
But her upbringing grounded Eleanor in useful activity. She likes to go to bed early. She likes a tidy house, to cook, to make things that people will use, however frivolously. The fripperies of an artistic life combined with the night life culture in New York has little appeal to her. But somehow, because she has associated that culture as something she wants to belong to, the rebellious alternative to her parents’ plain life, her failure to fit in signals to Eleanor that she somehow is not an adult.
It’s all the more startling when you look at those to whom Eleanor compares herself and finds herself lacking as an adult.
Stash comes over to me. “You hit the ball,” he says. “Darling, I’m so proud of you.” Once again he locks me in an animalistic embrace. One of his greatest fears – he’s often told me – is that he will hug me so hard he’ll break my ribs. Once he read something like this in the papers, how a man met his girlfriend at the airport and was so glad to see her he killed her. I don’t know what my greatest fear is; maybe just that I’ll be caught and discovered, accused of being a child in an adult’s body. (3)
Eleanor says this in a story wherein she is playing baseball with Stash’s artist friends, who have created informal and largely useless teams. This story shows the people in the culture Eleanor aspires to and none of them seem particularly adult-like. Most have terrible substance problems. One woman looks like Tweety Bird, is addicted to heroin, is pregnant by a speed addict who lives with his mother in Spain, and collapses and needs to go to the hospital the moment she tries to run (and Eleanor is jealous of this woman – more on this later). A film director who smokes pot throughout the game brought his son with him. The director and his wife separated and each began gay relationships and their little boy is more or less left to his own devices.
This little boy is drawn to Eleanor and she feels harassed by him. He wants to take her place in the batting rota, wants to take her place as catcher, and instead of ignoring him or just telling the kid to go away, she gets increasingly angry at the little boy, a neglected, feral child.
All through the inning I get madder and madder. I really want to be the catcher. It’s fun, even though I hurt my finger… I like being the catcher, now this little kid is trying to take my position from me. (3)
Eleanor’s inability to assert her will is a chronic issue, it seems. She seethes at the child in a manner that makes me want to thump her on the head – in this regard she’s right to worry about being seen as a child disguised as an adult. She feels unable to compete with the other people she considers adults so she permits this little boy to draw her into a situation of childish competition. She is 27 but she feels this child is her genuine competition. She tries to get Stash to tell the kid off but he doesn’t comply.
“I can’t believe I let him push me around,” I say. “Why doesn’t someone discipline him? Why doesn’t he take over his father’s turn at bat? He stole my position as catcher and now he wants to take over half my batting.”
“But he loves you,” Stash says. “That little kid loves you. I can see that.”
“Yeah, because he knows I’m a pushover,” I say. (3)
Eleanor softens toward the kid but this passage turned me against her a bit because Stash is right – the kid is attracted to Eleanor because, in her own very neurotic way, she was the closest thing to an adult on the field. Stash is self-absorbed and resembles a Nordic barbarian. The little boy’s father is an addict and is cruel to his son; Eleanor witnesses the seething menace and dislike the father exhibits towards this little boy. Mame, the girl who resembles Tweety Bird, is almost a literal cartoon character. Everyone else is in a similar boat. In a world of chaos Eleanor is the stable adult even as she agitates over not feeling grown up.
Eleanor is also strangely crippled by minor criticisms, leveled by meaningless comments. Here she is getting pizza and reaches for another person’s order thinking it’s hers.
The cook said to me, “Don’t get impatient, honey, just relax.” This only made me feel more foolish. The slice he gave me, however, was really sparse. Most of the ingredients had slid off into the oven. I was embarrassed and would have said something along the lines of “I can assure you I’m not impatient,” but nothing came out of my mouth. The cook, I was certain, had gone out of his way to make me look pushy, when obviously it was unintentional on my part.
The pizza was like a metaphor for my entropic life. The girl whose piece of pizza I tried to steal was carrying one of those trashy novels about Hollywood. I was incensed. This was her reading material, yet she still felt superior to me. (4)
This is a common reaction from people who are nervous and neurotic. Though I write about my own anxiety and ridiculous thoughts in a hyperbolic manner, the fact is that I’m pretty stable, emotionally and socially. But I still find myself ruminating over innocuous comments, looking for overt insult or nasty motives where there aren’t any to be found. But Eleanor’s will is weak. She only felt that girl felt superior to her because Eleanor does actually feel inferior to her. This girl temporarily made Eleanor feel small yet was confident enough to be seen reading a trashy book while she ate pizza. Eleanor doesn’t have that sort of confidence and there is something decidedly childish about being in a state of continual comparison with others, to cling to unimportant cues of social status – not reading sleazy books, for example – to pump one’s self up after a minor interaction at a pizza joint.
Eleanor’s strange struggle between her childish nature and her obvious adult tendencies may be because she has a very old-fashioned nature. At a party for the aforementioned Daria, she is transfixed with the food.
It’s wonderful to see so many cakes all lined up like that. Sometimes, for recreational purposes, I sit and read an old cookbook: it belonged to my grandmother, and is falling apart, but it’s filled with fascinating recipes that require twelve eggs and a pound of butter and cups of nuts ground to a fine paste, and which have names like Miirb Teig, Lady Baltimore Cake, Lalla Rookh, and Lebkuchen. (5)
I do this. I love old recipes, Victorian books about housekeeping. There’s a gravitas in old ways, a sense of following by rote hard-won experience, a sense of belonging to an older culture that revolved around creation and order. Eleanor’s nature harks back to a time where involved recipes and baking were not so recreational. She is at her best when she is engaging in the sorts of activities our grandmothers would have considered everyday events. Eleanor is also drawn to older people at parties and gatherings. She spends time at Daria’s birthday party with Daria’s mother, listening to her tell silly stories and dance with her equally elderly boyfriend. Eleanor sits with this older couple mainly because Stash gets annoyed with her if she stays glued at his side and because she inadvertently offends people with simple conversation. Older people are easier for her to talk to because the mores of the time she’s living in make little sense to her.
Eleanor’s True Desires
Throughout the stories it is clear that aside from enough money to support herself, Eleanor does not want what she has not got, but she also doesn’t want much of what she has. She tells herself all kinds of things in order to stay on this road she feels she must stay on in order to become what she feels is her ideal self – an amazing girlfriend, a woman who inspires attention, a person who gets lots of acclaim.
Part of Eleanor’s internal litany is that she tolerates her situation with Stash, which is both unpleasant and not all that bad in equal parts, due to a need to learn to navigate adult relationships.
I have a couple of girlfriends in the city. One is renting out her second bedroom for $650 a month. The other has a three-year-old baby, and I’m sure she’d be glad if I slept on her couch in the living room in exchange for day-care services, but would I be better off? Anyway, I’m trying to learn how to get along with a man. (1)
So she tolerates the parts of her live-in relationship because she tells herself she needs to learn to get along with a man. But she cannot even say this to herself without emphasizing how much her back is against the wall. She could potentially rent a room but just to put into perspective how expensive that $650 really was, it translates into approximately $1875 in 2016 dollars. Or she could sleep on a couch in exchange for being a live-in nanny. Given the tiresome nature of her life, Stash isn’t even the lesser of evils and he’s also not a good emotional choice for Eleanor. But Stash is an acclaimed artist and Eleanor feels acutely her lack of success in a city of women who can afford those expensive haircuts and silver belt buckles, who look good in rubber dresses and are interesting at parties. So she balances her feeling as a supplicant by rationalizing that she is trying to learn how to get along with men. This is, by the way, bullshit. Eleanor gets along with plenty of men in this book. But her idealized self is looking at this situation she’s in – a woman who is forced to live with a man she doesn’t really like because she has an idea of what she as a modern woman needs to be – and lies and lies to herself.
But Eleanor is only partly deluded. She knows. Believe me, she knows. She is neurotic, not filled with cognitive dissonance. But she is the sort of woman to flit from one bad idea to the next as she tries to marry what she wants with what she has in front of her. For example, when at the dinner party where she met Samantha Binghampton, Samantha susses out that Eleanor is not married to Stash, and that Stash has little social capital beyond a bit of fame. Samantha is rich and famous and supported by her even richer husband as she tries on new careers and invites Eleanor to come and meet her husband’s brother. If Eleanor takes this path, she will be introduced to the rich, interesting, powerful people she tells herself she wants to be around but Eleanor decides not to go, to go home with Stash and continue in her tiresome, tenuous life.
I realized that I really did want to be where I was – with Stash, in this hovel. I ran through all the parts of my life, trying to figure out which thing in particular wasn’t working for me. I supposed I could get a nose job and take one of those courses that teaches chutzpa. (I had read the leaflet on it in the supermarket.) But would this make me a more spiritual person? I doubted it. It was hard for me to keep up with all the various aspects of reality. (4)
Fair enough – she’s realizing she isn’t cut out for the fast lane and strange pop cultural cures (except that doesn’t hold up for long – Eleanor’s a girl of the Cosmo quiz age, god help her). But the passage goes on…
Finally I figured it out: I wanted a baby. (4)
Oh shit. Luckily Stash isn’t on the same page, but Eleanor may be on the right path – she funnels a lot of energy into dressing and doting on Andrew, Stash’s Dalmatian. She can’t dote on Stash so she decorates the dog. But it speaks to a certain level of emotional desperation that she even considers having a baby with a man who sulks and then blows up completely when Eleanor has coffee with a male friend, who lives in a single room seven-story walk-up that’s already crammed with boxes and botched redecoration attempts.
Eleanor really does not want that which so many other people would kill to have. The preparations to travel to other countries for business and vacations exhaust her.
You never wanted to take a vacation. Just to stay home requires all of your energy, and when you go away you not only have to do all the normal, exhausting things, you also have to run around getting tickets, contact-lens solution, do the laundry, et cetera. You’d much rather just lie in bed and think about how much fun everyone else is having. (2)
Everyone else may not be having a good time on vacations, but she thinks they must be so she’s going to pretend as well, even as she just wants to take a nap.
She doesn’t even really want Stash’s apartment.
Below the bridge is an alcove, hidden from the cars but visible to pedestrians. If things don’t work out with Stash, maybe I’ll take my stuff and live in that little hole. I’ll furnish it with a battery-operated lamp, a worn chair from the street, all the luxuries of home. The idea seems cozy. (3)
She’d literally rather live under a bridge than with Stash. But Eleanor has a hard time wanting much of anything aside from security. This passages occurs after Eleanor is hit while jaywalking by car going at a low speed.
On the bus home, I reminded myself not to tell Stash about what had happened or he would kill me. How would it be if he picked up the Post and saw JEWELRY DESIGNER, 28, KILLED BY HIT AND RUN? First of all, everyone would know I got my hair cut in a cheap joint on Lexington Avenue and not at some SoHo or East Village spot. Plus, who would come to my funeral? I had no friends. They threw big parties for themselves at various clubs and their pictures were published in the most fashionable magazines. Maybe they were receiving outside financial assistance. I had no money to throw parties, although I had a hunger for things I knew realistically I didn’t actually care for. (4)
Eleanor mentions being unable to throw parties several times while she is living with Stash and it’s hard to see how, with her levels of self-loathing and anxiety, she could pull off a party. When she does finally get to throw one, she only does so to cheer herself up after a failed romance and ends up making a relative hash of it, though it ends well. Still, she only enjoys the party when it winds down to a handful of people and they sit around drinking. Eleanor never wanted to be a hostess or the center of attention.
Eleanor, Looking on the Up-Side
Eleanor, while trapped in her self-imposed misery, does her best to see the sunny side whenever she can because otherwise she will be forced to admit that these great moments in her life, or these moments that are merely okay rather than rotten, are not worth enduring Stash in order to have, giving lie to her status as a happy girlfriend of a semi-famous artist.
Eleanor finds it hard even to dress the way she wants but that’s okay, she insists.
Things went okay. Stash bought me a coat. Day-Glo orange wool with a green velvet collar. It wasn’t the one I would have chosen – I guess I would have selected something a little more conservative. But it was nice to have a new winter coat. (1)
You see this with Janowitz’s female characters. The men with whom they involve themselves or who pursue them really don’t give a shit about their tastes or wants. Cora was chased by a rich boy who spent too much money on meals she didn’t like and gave her furniture she didn’t ask for. Eleanor received a coat she didn’t really like. Make the crumbs an uncaring ego give you a feast or be seen as an ungrateful, insensitive bitch. But things were okay in Eleanor’s world, just okay, because she still has a roof over her head. And a coat that she doesn’t really like.
Eleanor spends a lot of time making a virtue out of failings and flaws. This passage occurs during the Haitian Vacation.
The second night your boyfriend tries to figure out some sort of rigging to keep the mosquitoes from biting his ears. Finally he comes up with the idea of wearing your bikini bottoms over his head. Just his face sticks out. “They’re not going to get me tonight,” he says.
It’s strange to see a man wearing the bottom half of a bathing suit around his head, but you don’t say anything. For a while before you fall asleep you watch the little Watchman T.V. Both of you can’t imagine traveling anywhere without it. There is only one channel, playing the Jim Jones/Guyana movie massacre dubbed into French. Then an elderly, pudgy singer, who resembled Liberace, sings rock-and-roll songs in French while three girls wearing duck masks dance behind him.
“It’s funny,” your boyfriend says, “I was just thinking, for kids who grow up not speaking any English, American rock-and-roll music must seem really strange. I mean, it can’t make any sense to them.”
You are pleased that, away from the pressures of New York, you and your boyfriend are actually communicating on an intimate level. Now you are glad you have refrained from telling your boyfriend not to wear your bathing suit bottom around his head, even though he is probably stretching it out. (2)
Stash manages to speak to Eleanor in a manner that isn’t chiding or criticizing, engaging in a conversation that is at best banal, and Eleanor is grateful. She’s so grateful that she’s totally okay with the fact that her boyfriend is wrecking her swim suit while they are vacationing in a Haitian hellscape where sitting by a hotel pool is literally the only the safe thing to do. And Jesus, Janowitz’s men really enjoy stretching out women’s clothes and accessories.
Eleanor the Pop Culture Victim
Even as Eleanor decides she hates the idea of taking a course to teach her chutzpah, ridiculous pop culture ideas permeate her life. She’s unhappy and is often not in control of her feelings, let alone her actual life arc. When you lack control it becomes all too easy to fall prey to strange cures for that which ails you. Eleanor is intelligent and even at her worst she is self-aware. I cannot help but feel that in her heart she never truly falls for any of the crap she uses to help her plan her fate. To this day I myself keep a Magic Eight Ball in the master bathroom and will ask it questions when I feel nervous. The thing is really old and sort of senile so most of the time it tells me to “Ask Again Later” but I also know that if I give it a weird little twist when I turn it over after asking a question, I can get a definite answer. Well, maybe. It often lands literally on the line between two different definite answers.
I am self-aware. I know this is nonsense. But it keeps that voice inside me, the voice that needs to know what the hell is happening this very second, the voice that likes to feel in control of my life, quieted as I get ready for my day. I am an open skeptic. I do not believe in the paranormal, psychics or god or gods and present as a woman not given to woo. But there I stand, after I blow dry my hair, asking the damn ball what will happen. And I do it because I am so nervous I need an answer, any answer, no matter how ridiculous that answer is, to silence my anxiety. It’s dumb, but there we are, and Eleanor understands me. Educated women who fear the unknown or that which is out of our hands do this so much more often than you would suspect. Neurosis like this makes James Randi cry – neurosis woo makes us all look like fools.
Eleanor turns to nonsense emotional psychology typical of the time, engaging in strange struggles that we know by now must have bored her and had this woo worked it would have gained her a man she ultimately didn’t really want.
Once I bought a book of advice to women about men, and the book told me to read the sports section of the newspaper every day. So far Stash hasn’t proposed, although I can quote you the batting averages of the Yankees for the past season. (3)
It’s dumb and sort of embarrassing but I get it. It’s almost religious, isn’t it. Read your catechism, your list of rules, and you will be blessed when you are finished. It’s comforting, to think that if you just do this thing – read the sports section – the man you are with and who makes you unhappy will suddenly see your value, stop being a jerk and want to spend his life with you forever and ever.
Eleanor came honestly by her reliance on pop-psych garbage to help her feel better. Her mother has this recommendation when Eleanor finally separates from Stash.
“Get a tape recording that tells you you’re wonderful,” my mother said. “Stash had a way of treating you like a leper. Go back to London, men appreciated you there.” (6)
As advice goes this isn’t so awful and Eleanor’s mother is not so bad, but Eleanor’s mother really hated her marriage and her life as a farmer. She says she felt like she was playing a role, which is what Eleanor is doing. She left her life as a back to the lander, got sexy underwear and went on the vacations her daughter dreads. Then she moved to upstate New York in a tiny apartment and Eleanor cannot possibly move in with her when things get bad. There is little more she can offer her daughter than encouragement to listen to tapes telling her she’s awesome. And as much as second wavers may hate to hear it, the end of the cultural permissiveness that permeated their feminist movement brought us all sorts of personal consciousness movements. Better to tell Eleanor to take a class on making tiny clay figures for her jewelry – an actual accomplishment rather than a bullshit repetition to rewire a brain suffering from a lack of independence and real accomplishment.
Also men didn’t like Eleanor in the UK. I don’t have time or space to discuss that part of the story but men liked Eleanor’s mother in the UK. Decades later men remembered her mother when Eleanor herself went to visit. Eleanor found the UK alienating and lonely.
Later, Eleanor, after parting with Stash, enters into a short-term relationship with a mysterious and handsome designer named Wilfredo (played by Steve Buscemi in the movie adaptation and this is where I again remind you not to watch the film – read the book) and when it ends she is devastated and engages in some pop-psych to nurse her through it, looking at a way to maybe make a better impact on Wilfredo should he ever reappear.
I tried not to leave my apartment in case the phone might ring. While I waited, I studied a book I had bought about how to make men fall in love with you. The book seemed to suggest I had done something wrong. First of all, I should never have left messages on Wilfredo’s machine—this showed I was too interested—and second, I hadn’t made an attempt to communicate with Wilfredo in his own language. According to the book, Wilfredo fell into the “visual” category of men. To make him fall in love with me, I should have done two things: spoken in “visual” language, using terms such as “It looks like we’re going to have a lot of fun tonight” and also by “mirroring” him. Mirroring meant that, for example, while we were sitting at a table if he touched his chin with his hand, I should do the same.
I wasn’t sure if I necessarily believed all of this, but thinking about it did pass the time. (5)
It did pass the time – as I will show in a moment Eleanor eventually uses all this pop garbage to distract herself, to stop ruminating and move on. Maybe there is more to it than I thought, but I still think my Magic Eight Ball is wrong 90% of the time yet will continue using it daily.
Fashion was still becoming whimsical when Janowitz wrote this book. The counter-culture’s feathers and beads on leather straps had given way to far more outlandish fashion choices for those in the counter-culture and Eleanor wants to design jewelry that appeals to such tastes. But she’s not very good at it, and when she’s good at it, she’s rather incompetent, though the stories end with her achieving some success. She has many reasons for her lack of success.
Here’s Eleanor’s train of thought as she plays baseball with Stash.
If I had stayed in tonight, by myself, I could have thought some more about the kinds of jewelry I want to design. The best ideas I’ve had so far is to make pins and earrings out of reproductions of food. A plastic company will sell me an assortment of pastries – petit fours, eclairs, strawberry tarts – which I might put onto necklaces and earring wires. Stash has said this idea is not unique enough. He’s already seen, in some stores, earrings in the shape of sushi and sashimi, with realistic rice, seaweed and raw fish. He’s a harsh critic, but usually he’s right. (3)
If I could buy items like this in North Dallas malls in 1982, the ideas were stale by the time Eleanor came up with them. But had she stayed in, would she have come up with a different idea, a better idea? Possibly. Living with Stash sucks up so much of her emotional energy that could go into design but Eleanor didn’t really enter into the life of a jewelry designer with a plan much beyond rebelling against her parents’ way of life. But then again, living with Stash is an excellent explanation as to why she is failing, right? If only she didn’t have to spend so much time defusing Stash, she’d funnel all that energy into work, yes?
Not really. It becomes clear throughout the stories, Eleanor isn’t particularly rigorous in her desire to achieve. Here she is talking to Tweety-Bird/Mame.
“Hey, look at this,” she says. From a tremendous pocketbook she pulls out an oversized wineglass. Attached to the stem is an assortment of rhinestones – square cubes of emerald, ruby, topaz – arranged around a rubber cupid carrying a bow and arrow. “See this?” she says. “I just got back from Europe. The glasses went over fabulously, I got tons of orders.”
I feel a twinge of jealousy. I’ve been too busy trying to adjust to life with a man to devote my energy to my work. The world of jewelry and home-furnishing accessories is very competitive. Maybe I should quit doing jewelry and start to do clothing. Stash has been encouraging, but he emphasizes the fact that I don’t work hard enough. (3)
Unquestionably Eleanor does not work hard enough. Even when she doesn’t have Stash’s notions controlling how she looks at herself, she is honest about her lack of drive. But I feel that Eleanor’s lack of drive and vision is part of her neurosis – she buys into the idea of the Superwoman, a woman accomplished in every area of her life. Eleanor can’t get things going well with Stash and given that is a problem that causes her more stress in the immediate short term than her lack of professional success, the triage of her life demands she focus on Stash. And also it’s really sad she’s jealous of Mame, who looks like Tweety Bird, is pregnant and is addicted to heroin.
But it’s frustrating to consider this element of Eleanor’s life. She seems helpless to create as long as she is with Stash and while I understand her sloth I also just want to shake her until she snaps out of her helplessness.
A boy with an English accent, wearing an earring made from a yellow tooth, get up to bat [sic]. I should have thought of that – necklaces made out of animal teeth. I could probably find teeth in the meat market. This is a slightly repulsive idea, but I’ll see what Stash says. Stash always knows what’s going to be hot; he’s got a fatherly, knowledgeable quality to him. (3)
No idea is wholly new under the sun. Eleanor gets inspirations and will only act on them if Stash approves. This is leaving the realm of neurosis, the struggle between the real and the ideal self, and entering into the realm of the pathetic. Would an artist with drive have this attitude?
Here’s her reaction when she realizes Stash may be spoiling to stay in for the night rather than take her to a dinner party at which he is one of the honored guests.
I felt like clobbering Stash over the head. I was practically thirty years old, unmarried, and my marketability was going downhill fast. My career hadn’t taken off the way I had hoped. I had to quit working on my jewelry full-time in order to take on a job two days a week as a copy editor for an East Village newspaper. I also had to be burdened with my lousy personality. If I had been more outgoing maybe I could have been more successful with my jewelry. That was the way things worked in Manhattan. (4)
Interesting that Eleanor, when taking inventory of the negative things in her life places getting old, being unmarried and losing her romantic marketability before her lack of success. But what is interesting really is that she’d never really worked on her jewelry full-time. We see in the very first story that the bulk of her days are spent taking care of Stash and his dog and watching daytime television. She seldom pursues new ideas. But she can’t work full-time on jewelry because she copy edits twice a week. Oh, and she has a crappy personality and not being outgoing destroyed her chances for success. Eleanor, like most neurotics, is an excuse-making machine. All those excuses don’t really protect her ego from the reality of her many failures. She’s a failure, no getting around it. But those excuses give her room to play with the idea of the Ideal Eleanor – her lack of success isn’t linked to something primal, like talent or innate drive. Rather it’s all because she can’t work full-time and has a crappy personality. And of course if she was married and secure everything would have been better.
But Eleanor really isn’t interested in hard work. Even as she is trying to impress people, she cannot hide how little she really likes the idea of working hard in her craft. She is at a diner with Stash and her competition Daria, as well as Daria’s boyfriend.
Stash drinks a chocolate milkshake while he smokes a little cigar. He asks Daria if she remembers his old girlfriend, Andy.
“Oh sure – Andy Dime. I see her name a lot these days,” Daria says.
Stash says that Andy got to be very successful because she worked hard all the time.
“I like to rest myself,” I say.
“In fact, Andy worked harder at costume design than anyone else I ever knew,” Stash says. From six A.M. until five P.M. she worked, then she would go to dance class. Then she would have dinner – vegetarian – and then we would go out dancing until three in the morning.”
“Amazing,” I say. (5)
It’s possible that Eleanor was trying to be sarcastic – a natural enough response when your boyfriend mentions his ex in front of you while flirting with the woman who may be your replacement. But it is telling that Eleanor can’t even begin to compete on the field of endeavor. She struggles to climb the stairs to their apartment and can’t create anything new without Stash’s continual help and approval. What can she really say about herself in this situation other than discuss her lack of motivation with sarcastic remove? Also, as I read this passage I realized that maybe successful women don’t stay with Stash for very long.
When Eleanor finally separates from Stash and gets her own apartment, she begins to have some success. Her jewelry eventually takes off, but for a while she continues struggling to make jewelry and accessories but is still sort of screwing things up. She had made some hats from fabric she found in dumpsters.
I was a little uneasy, because the hats really smelled like mothballs: they were mothproofed. I had found most of the fabric for the hats in a garbage dumpster in SoHo. When I wore one of the hats – a turban style in the shape of a cobra, head ready to strike – to a party someone pointed out that there seemed to be a couple of moths flying around my head. The man I was talking to pulled apart two of the cobra’s coils and several more moths flew out – the hat was infested. The hostess of the party said that because of me she would have to have the place exterminated. (7)
But this is a very positive sign. Eleanor, without Stash to lean on, is being forced to try and make mistakes. As humiliating as it can be to be the cause of a major extermination, Eleanor is engaging in the sort of error and correction that will make her name. She won’t ever forget to check dumpster dived fabric for insects again and once she gets a grip on this sort of low-cost DIY, she’ll have the confidence to move on to other improvisations and ideas.
Eleanor, Post-relationship and Lessons Learned
After she breaks up with Stash, Eleanor attempts a new relationship with a man called Wilfredo, who is a designer who recently went bankrupt and is probably gay. After some very positive signs, Wilfredo does the 1980s version of ghosting her and she doesn’t deal with it as well as I would have hoped. Before he dumps her, she reveals her mindset to a male friend – she is talking to this man at a party she is co-hosting with Wilfredo at his home.
At one point, when it seemed they were discussing a couple they knew who were in the middle of splitting up, I decided to insert a contribution. “Women these days are supposed to be tough and independent,” I said. “But I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting to be bonded to another person.”
“Oh, come off it,” Mike said. “If women were really tough then they’d know their career is the most important thing; if some guy comes along that’s fine. But all the women I know are just as obsessed with Lane hope chests and Bride magazine as if it was the 1950s.” (7)
Screw Mike’s over-generalization but look at what Eleanor said. She knows she is supposed to be focused on a career, and is more focused now than she was at any other time in her life, but she wants a bond with a man. She doesn’t want a marriage necessarily – she knows now she can take care of herself. But she does want a bond. She doesn’t want to be alone. And she’s not out of the deluded, neurotic, childish woods yet but I can see her changing mindset and how it mirrored the trajectory of my own life.
But her progress is filled with leaps and baby steps, taken in turn. When Wilfredo ghosts Eleanor she descends into panic.
It was almost like having a physical illness. I walked around my apartment as if I had been punched in the stomach, and three times I called the telephone company to see if my line was out of order. After a few more days I didn’t feel any better, and I called my mother. She said I should call up her friend who lives in Oklahoma for advice. Her friend was an expert at getting men to fall in love with her, and really understood them. I phoned her and told her the whole story. And my mother’s friend said, “Well, it sounds like things speeded up too fast. You should never talk about your own needs—at least not in the short run. This may sound devious, but that’s the way it is. You should be affectionate, but not intense. Now, here’s my plan. If you haven’t heard from him within three more days, you can try calling him again. Be light—say you’re calling to say hello. But don’t be too available. Seem aloof.”
“It’s hard for me to pretend to be aloof when he’s not paying any attention in the first place,” I said. The whole business was so painful. (7)
It speaks to a certain level of desperation that she called a friend of her mother’s who lived in Oklahoma and asked for advice. But I get this. God, who alive hasn’t had that shaky, sick-stomach feeling when someone pulled the rug out from under you romantically. It hurt to read this.
I decided to go uptown and skulk around near where Wilfredo worked and lived. There was always a chance I’d catch him leaving his apartment on his way to his studio: I knew he kept odd hours.
When I got to the stop where Wilfredo lived I hung out on the street for a while, standing in the slight drizzle and watching the faces as they came along, one after the next. Everyone had the same features—two eyes, a nose, and a mouth—yet every face was slightly different from the next. I didn’t see any two alike, though each appeared to be set in recognizable expressions: despair, fatigue, joy, ennui. I think I could have stood for hours, watching the people go by. Some urgency was diminished. The faces seemed a partial answer to a question I couldn’t even articulate. (7)
And again, who hasn’t done this, walked around the area where an ex lives, hoping to get some information about what they are doing now. Did he leave because of someone new? Did he get arrested and can’t remember her number? Did he die? When you are ghosted after a new relationship begins, it’s hard not to want information. And this happened before ghosting was a thing. Interpersonal communications carried a lot more weight back then because you couldn’t text or e-mail or Snapchat and people didn’t have several numbers you could reach them at. So all of this is expected. One sort of hoped Eleanor would be stronger than this but even as I cringed reading her and remembering my own weaknesses, Eleanor did something that initially made me feel full of despair but as an adult made me realize Eleanor was making progress.
But after a while it started to rain harder, and I went into a bookstore. I bought four books: Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living; a book on transactional analysis to write your own life script; How to Make a Man Marry You in Thirty Days; and something on reincarnation. The four books cost me almost $30, and I was going to wait until I got home to take them out, but as soon as I hit the street I ripped open the bag and pulled one out, starting to read as I walked to the subway in the rain. (7)
Okay, she’s engaging in pop psychology and woo. No way around that. But take note of a few things. She’s calmed down. She’s no longer thinking of Wilfredo specifically. She’s instead looking at solutions, however silly they were. She was not crying. She was reading. And she had the money to spend $30 on books on a whim (about $87 in 2016 dollars). But best of all, she was going home. To her home. Where she would lick her wounds alone.
Later she decides to have a party, that party she wanted to give when she was with Stash but sort of didn’t want to host.
A voice came into my head and told me I should give a party. I had always wanted to give a party while I was living with Stash; now that I was alone there was nothing preventing me except that I didn’t want to do it. I was afraid.
I thought about it for a while—giving a party—and then I thanked my lucky stars: I didn’t have a table or chairs. So that ruled that little whim out. No one could have a party without a place to sit. But the voice kept nagging, “You must give a party, Eleanor. It will be good for you,” and finally I broke down. I found myself in a store, purchasing two chairs and a table and arranging to have them delivered.
I could see what my actions were leading to. I understood that I was at a period in my life when everything was falling apart. If I could pull off a successful party then it meant that eventually I’d be able to pull my whole life together. (8)
I could go into another several thousands words about how much Eleanor set herself up for failure. She couldn’t assemble the furniture when it arrived. She invited too many people, assuming that most people would fail to show, invited too few women and far too many men, and most of the men came because they were certain Eleanor was in love with them.
The evening ends with an exhausted Eleanor sharing wine with three men who stayed after everyone else left. Two are men who are just friends with Eleanor – they are married to women whom they avoid in favor of spending time with each other. The third is a Hungarian biker, Jan, whom she met just before the party and invited on a whim. He showed up with a duffle bag because his girlfriend threw him out.
They sat there like the Three Stooges, waiting to see what I would do next.
“This might have been easier on me if I had a boyfriend.” I said. “Someone to share the responsibility with. I’m starting to think I’ll never meet anyone.”
“Let me tell you something,” Beauregard said in a slurred voice. “You shouldn’t act so desperate.”
“Let me tell you something,” I said. “I was just as desperate when I had a boyfriend. I consider life itself to be an act of desperation.” Beauregard looked puzzled.
“She doesn’t like to have value judgments placed on her,” Jan said.
“Thank you,” I said. (8)
They sit and drink a bit more.
“I think I miss Stash,” I said. “So did I do anything terrible tonight?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Beauregard said.
“No worse than anybody else,” Mark said.
I was drunk, and exhausted. “I know it,” I said. “One part of me knows that — but the other part of me berates myself constantly.”
“You don’t get what you think out of a relationship anyway,” Jan said.
“So it’s impossible then,” I said. (8)
And since it’s impossible they all sit and drink wine, a reasonably pleasant way to spend the evening.
Does Jan leave? Does he stay forever? Does Eleanor go on to become very famous and emotionally stable? Who knows. But she’s made jewelry and people liked it. She did the things she feared the most – she moved out, lives alone and held a party. She doesn’t necessarily know what she wants out of life but at least she isn’t miserable as she finds out what to do next. She ends the story planning to call Consolidated Edison to find out why her stove isn’t working. Boring, maybe not the sort of ending that is cinematic in scope, but it’s an adult ending. Eleanor is still a walking, talking font of neurosis but she’s verging into an adulthood and a sort of viable future that many women of her time never found.
It can be so easy to dismiss Eleanor and much of Slaves of New York as quirky fluff. And parts of the book are quirky and fluffy. But this collection of short stories is a representation of a zeitgeist that relies on humor and humanity to tell the stories of strange, ultimately very interesting characters. But we don’t live in an age where these sorts of stories jump gender – this was a book largely read by women and I think that explains, in part, why this book didn’t carry over from the 80s into current tastes the way some of the other Brat Packers, notably Bret Easton Ellis, did.
I think one of the reasons Eleanor appealed to me so much is that she was a sort of Gen-X precursor combined with a Jane Austen character. She’s a perfect embodiment of shifting cultures. She’s clever and nervous but she’s not as competent as one would expect from a woman in her late 20s. She’s past the rebellious counter-culture of the late sixties but women making their way on their own was still a novelty. I mean, we still have dumbass movies and books about how hard quirky women have it in the real world of business and work and dating and blah blah blah. So Eleanor received the same inculcation I received – life should be different for clever girls but the cultural shift had not really happened yet. In some ways it still hasn’t happened because unless you are rich as hell you can’t utilize your degree and your uterus at the same time without really half-assing it or hiring lots of domestic help. And suck it if you want to argue feminism with me, don’t even try because I’m still young enough to see your hope and old enough to tell you what I saw at the revolution and every exception you bring up will still be an exception. Eleanor carried the curse of the clever but neurotic girl on her back and the load was made unstable by the notion that marriage and safety were passe.
I think that yet another reason I wanted to run away to a small town in the desert, owning nothing but books and working a dead end job is because such a life would be cheap, sustainable and portable. Eleanor had none of those things – she was stuck. The feminist movement permitted her mother to leave a bad marriage and completely wrecked the ideas of marriage among the artistic and bohemian classes. Seventy years earlier the creator of the concept of the “room of one’s own” so important to the life of the female artist, Virginia Woolf, was married. She had private income, having been raised in wealth, and was in her own sense the “Stash” in her marriage with Leonard Woolf. She had the money and fame but she still understood the tenuous state of the female writer and artist who was dependent on men, marriage and money. Even as feminism spoke of the virtues of liberation very little attention was given to the genuine reality of liberation without a stable platform to support it. Unhappy families ended when women could leave unhappy marriages – a good thing surely – but easy divorce left Eleanor with a fractured family and no where to go if things went badly. She did not have the choice of remaining home until a suitable man married her, or writing in her bedroom in private as her parents gave her quarter. The liberation that freed her mother left her as chattel until she managed to build solid ground under her own feet, something the women who came before her had not been asked to do when they were young.
Sounds melodramatic, but life is sort of melodramatic and so many late-Boomer/early-Gen-X women found themselves in this bizarre netherland wherein the promises of feminism had not quite met the reality lived by most. While second wave feminists bitched about the feminine mystique and questioned the usefulness and legitimacy of the nuclear family, a generation of girls took on the burden of raising and defending themselves in households where the men were often not blood relatives and adults paid increasingly less attention to the grittier realities of life, like cooking and cleaning, focusing instead on personal freedom and enlightenment. And what did this attention to theory gain their daughters? Eleanor was cooking and cleaning and was always afraid. It is melodramatic, though some may think it pathetic to pay attention to the situation of an educated, neurotic woman whose lack of planning and insecurity led her to an unsatisfying life, but this is, in many ways, the story of my life. My life may seem unworthy of examination to philosophers and great thinkers but most of us are not philosophers or great thinkers. Eleanor is my Everywoman and her story has meaning above and beyond the slice of life of a comedic but unhappy woman in a place and time that was dynamic and seedy and sort of sexy.
I think that dismissal of the stories of Everywomen is one of the reasons why Janowitz faded, or never had the clout that Bret Easton Ellis has or, his descendent in telling of the lives of white, educated men in melodramatic situations, Chuck Palahniuk also has. Women don’t often deal with the pressure of modern living by killing prostitutes in pyrotechnic detail nor do they start clubs where they beat the shit out of each other in order to feel alive again. Stories where women engage in such extremity seldom ring true. Instead women agitate and cover up and agonize and change ourselves internally to try to meet the ideas of ourselves in our heads and that is why our quotidian stories work best in novels of manner or, god help me, chick lit. But Eleanor is no Bridget Jones. Jones, a drunk who lacks self-control in every element of her life, is played for laughs. We laugh at Eleanor’s sarcasm and her at times dramatic antics as we cringe, remembering the times we ourselves felt desperation because we had no money, had no power and were terrified that we would be in the same position in ten years time. No matter how much feminism has changed the landscape of the West, the fact is that problems of men have cinematic scope and the problems of women are trivial and tiresome, except, of course, to the women who experience them. The problem these days is that no one can tell the difference between an Eleanor and a Bridget Jones, a Cora and some Nora Ephron heroine. The differences aren’t really even that subtle but when novels are, in fact, subtle, dealing with daily fear rather than blood shed, we lose our sense of nuance and I think we lose masters of characterization like Janowitz, authors who distill the angst of a generation into one nervous, wise-cracking woman.
1. “The Slaves in New York”
3. “Who’s on First?”