Reviews — From the August 2016 issue

Goodbye to All What?

The return of the Brat Pack

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Discussed in this essay:

Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, by Tama Janowitz. Dey Street. 304 pages. $25.99.

Bright, Precious Days, by Jay McInerney. Knopf. 416 pages. $28.95.

American Psycho The Musical, book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, music by Duncan Sheik. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

“I paid the bills, bought his ribbons,” we read in a story by Tama Janowitz written in 1979. The narrator is a New York City prostitute, the man in question her pimp, so there is nothing out of line about the financial arrangement. It takes a small act of the historical imagination, though, for today’s reader to understand that the ribbons are not for his hair but for his typewriter.

You’ll have heard of such things, or seen them in old movies. You didn’t have to keep saving your work, but you did have to hit the machine to get it to move down a line. Glanced at now, the instrument becomes a picture of an old world, a marker of lost time. Jay McInerney’s new novel, Bright, Precious Days, fondly remembers “a big beige IBM Selectric,” described as “the ultimate writing machine.” But that was then, when his characters had just graduated from Brown, in the early Eighties. A lot of ultimate machines would follow, and many ways in which the machines could talk to one another. Bret Easton Ellis’s most recent novel, Imperial Bedrooms (2010), involves internet videos and text-message stalking in significant roles.

A photograph by Ken Schles from the series Invisible City, taken in downtown New York City in the 1980s. His monograph of the same name was recently reprinted by Steidl. Schles’s work is on view this month at the Deichtorhallen, in Hamburg, Germany

A photograph by Ken Schles from the series Invisible City, taken in downtown New York City in the 1980s. His monograph of the same name was recently reprinted by Steidl. Schles’s work is on view this month at the Deichtorhallen, in Hamburg, Germany

These thoughts come to mind because the writers are themselves currently taking journeys into the past, or being taken on such journeys. Janowitz is publishing a memoir, Scream; McInerney’s new work is full of anxious or sentimental returns to the New York culture of the 1980s; and Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991), having survived an excellent movie adaptation (2000), has become a musical. These core members of the so-called Brat Pack — a name derived immediately from that given to a cluster of Eighties film actors, and more remotely from the Sinatra–Martin–Davis Rat Pack — all published highly acclaimed works of fiction when they were in their twenties. They portrayed New York as modish, coolly presenting violence, obscenity, and delight in drugs as facts of life that no one else had caught up with. All three are haunting their own beginnings as writers, and the question is not so much where are they now as what were they then? Or perhaps, how do the old days look from the perspective of the new?

A little foggy, is the short answer. This is partly because so many things have happened since, apart from the technological wonders. We can’t look back beyond them, or imagine a world without them: 9/11, the crash of 2008, the election of Barack Obama, the rise of global terrorism. In the 1980s, many people seem to have thought that they were smart and worldly and living dangerous lives; Patrick Bateman, the man who boasted of his prowess as both an investment banker and a serial killer, said as much in American Psycho: “This is no time for the innocent.” Now it looks as if it might have been a time for them more than it was for anyone else, as if there were something safe and charming about the very risks people were taking. This can’t be quite right, since everyone knew about AIDS, and there were many deaths from drug overdoses and drunk driving. But it is one of the effects that the early Brat Pack books create.

A longer answer dissipates some but not all of the fog. One of Janowitz’s best stylistic tricks is the sped-up hyperbole, where “lots of men,” for example, become “all the men.” In the story “The Slaves in New York,” a woman is thinking of moving to the city. Her plan is to live with a man she doesn’t like and then change her partner when she gets a chance. Her friend, the narrator, the expert on New York City living, discourages her firmly. There will be no such chance. “In today’s world, it’s the slave system.” A woman can’t afford to move out, because she can’t afford to live on her own. The friend is still uncertain. “Are you sure there’re no available men in New York?” “There’re women,” the narrator says. “There’re hundreds of women. They are out on the prowl. And all the men are gay or are in the slave class themselves.” The analogy is outrageous by any standards, quite apart from the drastic simplification. But it is part of the comedy, and the comedy is part of the mangled truth — about women’s submission, men’s entitlement, high rents, and writers’ whining. In another story the same narrator says that her partner is “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.”

This is how Janowitz’s strongest writing works, in her new memoir as well as in her older fiction. It’s not a matter of confusing fact with invention, but of stylization. Facts can be stylized, too. It’s perfectly possible that her father and brother are as monolithically awful as she says they are in Scream, and her mother as impeccably, sweetly dotty. But the effect is still one of streamlining and shaping, even if life itself is taking care of that.

The same principle allows her new book to be about the mentality of New York City while ostensibly situated in the wilds of New York State. The natives don’t see the region as wild, of course, but the writer does, as if she were on a trip to a strange place called America. One of Janowitz’s new upstate friends used to live in a place that was “not near any stores and it snowed most of the time, and when it wasn’t snowing it flooded.” How does Janowitz find her way back to her own remote house? “Simply by remembering the various bathtubs that local residents had discarded along the trail.” The men up there are not slaves or slave owners. They are an all but invisible species, “like rare, elusive birds who cannot leave their indigenous habitat. . . . They don’t leave their trucks. Or their barns, or tractors, or recliners.”

The tone of the exiled New Yorker works well for the memoir, as does the implication of the writer’s stubborn helplessness. This is what I’m like, Janowitz is saying, and don’t you dare give me any advice. She has moved to the wilds to look after her mother, a poet who used to teach at Cornell and now, severely overtaken by dementia, has been migrating from one care facility to another. Janowitz is in the process of having a little house built, but her mother dies before construction is finished. The account of Janowitz’s desolation, the shock of the slippage from constant preoccupation to irreparable absence, is genuinely affecting, because, rather than in spite, of its touch of Brat Pack narcissism: “I would never have a mother again.”

But curiously, the events of the past, the memory bits of the memoir, fall rather flat. Janowitz mentions her association with the Sex Pistols and Andy Warhol, but assumes that we know all about that stuff. Even when she thinks there is more to say, she doesn’t say it. Of Warhol’s published diaries, she remarks that they “are not at all what it was like to talk to him or listen to him.” This could have been the moment to tell us. She does affirm, a few pages later, that Warhol was not as shallow as he tried to seem. “You could tell he was more complicated than that. Inside there was a suffering, lonely entity.” But the word “entity” really does suggest that the writer has turned off her stylistic hearing aid. (Lou Reed fares a little better.)

Generally Janowitz does make an effort to conjure up the 1980s. But she somehow manages not to have been there. “I didn’t realize how unique or special the times were that I was living in.” And: “There were a lot of fabulous times. Too bad I was afraid to enjoy most of them.” She remembers her fellow Pack members, but not too fondly, it seems. “I knew each of my two packmates a bit,” she says. The next sentence reads, “I did get to meet many interesting people, though.”

What is striking, and in its way moving, is Janowitz’s assumption that the dead past, once real to her, can only seem improbable to us, a sort of depleted Oz. “Back then,” she keeps saying. “See, back then, there were no credit cards”; “people today . . . have no idea how limited the lives of women were back then.” There were no suitcases with wheels. People did not take snapshots of everything around them. “New York City just isn’t the same.” These instances feel like invitations to write, to re-create a world on the page, even if the author seems too tired to act on them. But then she is writing the invitations too, and perhaps feels that time regained would be even worse than time lost.

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