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.