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Tama Janowitz Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: San Francisco, California, 1957. Education: Barnard College, New York, B.A. 1977; Hollins College, Virginia, M.A. 1979; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1980-81. Career: Model, Vidal Sassoon, London and New York, 1975-77; assistant art director, Kenyon and Eckhardt, Boston, Massachusetts, 1977-78; writer-in-residence, Fine Arts Works Center, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1981-82; since 1985 freelance writer. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers fellowship, 1975; Janoway Fiction prize, 1976, 1977; National Endowment award, 1982. Agent: Jonathan Dolger, 49 East 96th Street, New York, New York 10028.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

American Dad. New York, Putnam, 1981; London, Picador, 1988.

A Cannibal in Manhattan. New York, Crown, 1987; London, Pan, 1988.

The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group. New York, Crown, and London, Picador, 1992.

By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee. New York, Crown Publishers, 1996.

A Certain Age. New York, Doubleday, 1999.

Short Stories

Slaves of New York. New York, Crown, 1986; London, Picador, 1987.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Conviction," in The New Generation, edited by Alan Kaufman. New York, Doubleday, 1987.

"Case History No.179: Tina," in Between C and D, edited by Joel Rose and Catherine Texier. New York, Penguin, 1988.

* * *

Few can match Tama Janowitz's commentaries on the race of fakes, freaks, and flakes who inhabit the sprawling metropolis of social non-achievement. By her own admission, satiric observations designed for humorous entertainment limit an author's appeal to those readers who share a similar sense of humor with the author. In addition, sharp-tongued social critics like Janowitz seem to invite harsher criticism of their writing, easily falling prey to the reactionary statement that their attempts at humor are not funny. Janowitz matches wits—and takes the resulting jabs—with writers such as Ring Lardner and Mark Twain, situating her novels in the tradition of "comic American misanthropy." Other favorable reviews compare her witty observations to those of Lewis Carroll and Kurt Vonnegut. The San Francisco Chronicle relegates her "adventurous narratives" to a category of classics like Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy, albeit feminist versions of them. It is clear that Janowitz's six books, beginning with the debut of American Dad in 1981, have established her reputation as a successful woman among male satirists.

American Dad is a tale of familial disaffection centering on Earl Przepasniak and his mother Mavis, a neglected poet, with the awe-inspiring shadow of father and husband, Robert, falling over them both. Robert's reputation rests less on his skills as a psychiatrist than on his social achievements with the opposite sex. "Can you imagine what it is for me, five-foot-six-inches," asks Earl "to live up to a six-foot-tall Dad whose sexual prowess is mythical in the northwestern corner of a certain New England state?" Following the inevitable divorce of his parents, Earl cultivates misanthropy in his mother's house with the aim of escaping his father's admonishing glare. After Mavis dies, Earl slips back into society with a highly developed feminine side, lacking overtly masculine merit in a seemingly male-oriented meritocracy.

Slaves of New York elevated Janowitz to literary stardom in 1986 and was made into a movie shortly after. It is an assortment of loosely connected short stories about an array of aspiring Greenwich Village artists, gallery owners, and their associates. Janowitz casts her gaze around the sparse crowd of her fellow disaster addicts and is rewarded with a splendid display of self-delusion, clashing colors, and reckless hope. Eleanor, an extension of Earl Przepasniak's female aspects, appears in several stories linking them together. The theme that coheres the separate stories, which were previously printed in magazines such as Spin, The New Yorker, Paris Review, and Interview, is how an insecure woman becomes a social being in the world's most significant bohemian society. It is a society of egos shackled by their own modish attitudes and the self-promoting opinions of others in a highly artificial environment about which they can only barely make sense.

Taken in isolation, the stories in Slaves of New York lack the epigrammatic sparkle that enlivened American Dad and, as a whole, lack the dynamism of the earlier work. Neither of these problems is apparent in Janowitz's second novel, A Cannibal in Manhattan, which was published in 1987. It received mixed reviews: enough negative press to dampen the excitement that followed her bestseller of 1986.

A Cannibal in Manhattan tells the story of Mgungu Yabba Mgungu, who is transplanted from his native island of New Burnt Norton to even more fierce surroundings. The eponymous "cannibal" relates the history of his intended journey toward greater civilization, which is Manhattan. Mgungu, nominal leader of the withered and disenfranchised Lesser Pimbas, possesses the recipe for a narcotic that has made his tribal life bearable during sixty-five years of indolence. We soon discern that he has been brought to America solely to be exploited. That this only becomes explicit through the knowing use of extra-narrative devices deployed by Janowitz is testimony to the sophistication of her wit and the profundity of Mgungu's gullibility.

Duped at every turn, unwittingly implicated in a horrendous crime, and abandoned by his erstwhile sponsors, this distinctly unmythical savage slides towards vagrancy and is eventually apprehended in typically ridiculous circumstances. Yet his mind-numbing naivete, a fondness for drink, his unenviable record as a chief, and his occasionally incongruous use of language serve to alert readers to the possibility that he may be an unreliable narrator. Manipulating her characters with a barely concealed Nabokovian glee, Janowitz draws a world of drug-dealing, treachery, and self-aggrandizement, while underpinning it with an alternate landscape of itinerancy, drunken camaraderie, and self-destruction.

Mgungu's passage through the first sphere of the drug business is a journey of missed connections and plans gone awry, allowing the reader plenty of space to fill in the details; his trawl through the second sphere of self-destruction leaves less to the imagination. Guilty or innocent, Mgungu is a thoroughly engrossing guide to his own misfortune. The richly inventive tale of a decline into contemporary civilization is both stunningly funny and damningly true.

The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group, published in 1992, followed A Cannibal in Manhattan with similar mixed reviews, prompting some critics to refer to the author as a one-book phenomenon. The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group suggests a metaphorical connection to the notion that being a male member of society affords greater privilege than being female. Protagonist Pamela Trowell works for a hunting magazine while living in a grotesque basement apartment. Pamela, who considers herself "ponderous and dumpy and unpleasant," concludes that her sole disadvantage in the hierarchy of her love life and employment by equally disadvantaged men is her gender. After a journey to Maine with her adopted son, Abdul, a stray adolescent who follows her home from a pizza parlor one night, she tests her premise by returning to Manhattan dressed as a man.

Despite mixed reactions from critics and readers, the novel was selected as Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times, which did commend the satirical humor in the abnormalities that constitute Pamela's normal life as a single woman in Manhattan. The exaggerations that constitute her hysterically funny observations about the curiosities of gender identity, family values, and motherhood in the 1990s de-politicize the universal truth of gender discrimination. The redeeming relationship between Pamela and Abdul, who are the least perverted in the array of family members and associates surrounding Pamela, offers a foothold of genuine affection in a seriously defective system of values.

By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee again covers this uncomfortable territory of modern values from the perspective of Maud Slivenowicz, the 19-year-old narrator who lives with her mother and four siblings in a trailer on the outskirts of a small city in upstate New York. Like the stereotype of white trailer trash, each child is fathered by different absent men. Maud schemes against her sister in a race to see who will marry into a life of wealth and privilege, as if that were a realistic option. She is distracted from this by her brother, Pierce, who is as dense as "Neanderthal man" but handsome enough to move to Los Angeles and become a movie star. This humorous look at sibling rivalry received the usual contradictory critical reviews, especially that the novel's satirical elements conflict with the human moments, creating a sense of incompleteness in the novel as a whole.

Janowitz's skills as a novelist found redemption in A Certain Age, published in 1999. In this parody of a consuming theme in Jane Austen's parlor dramas, a well-educated Sarah Lawrence graduate, Florence Collins, is desperate to find a husband. Whereas Austen's single women worry about being past it when they reach twenty, Florence is concerned about being thirty-two. She travels to the Hamptons, the equivalent of Austen's British country estates, displays her charms, clothing, and beauty, and is exploited or rejected by the coterie of men who might be marriageable suitors. Unlike an Austen novel, where suitable men and women happily marry into love and agreeable financial circumstances, nothing Florence does saves her from her damaging, graceless superficiality. Like an Edith Wharton novel, the ending for this most recent of Janowitz's insecure women protagonists is at the bottom of a downward spiral.

Janowitz states that the difficulty of finding a publisher for humorous novels by women equals the limitations of satisfying a mass audience's sense of humor. Her unique farcical voice speaks in a brilliant and biting prose while trying to balance insight with social criticism. Although seeming to avoid overtly political statements in her fiction, Janowitz addresses the issues of feminism, racism, capitalism, and cultural imperialism in a genuinely original and surprising manner, containing equal parts of humor, seriousness, and warmth. She accomplishes this in a wonderfully light and fanciful style that is often outrageously funny.

—Ian McMechan,

updated by Hedwig Gorski

[back] J(oseph) Robert Janes (1935-) Biography - Career, Sidelights - Personal, Member, Honors Awards, Writings

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over 3 years ago

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over 1 year ago

This is a very good report, I regard Tama Janovitz to be pre eminent the Comic Mistress of American Fiction. Her work is a Joy to read. I look forward to her next novel with pleasure.