To read Tama Janowitz's acclaimed short story collection Slaves of New York is to gaze upon a world both familiar and distant.
Published thirty years ago this summer, the book was prescient about the exigencies of life in NYC: the spiraling rents, the ruthless ambition, the preening narcissism of the successful, the desperation of those who aren't -- and the way that people and their relationships are warped by this existential maelstrom. The book is set mainly in the world of artists, where creativity clashes with reality, where love clashes with money. According to the book, a "slave" is someone in NYC who lives with someone they don't really like (or even loathe) but are forced to by economic circumstances; the "slaves" are the focus of Janowitz's funny and moving book.
Today, when so New Yorkers can barely afford to live here, there are probably more "slaves" here than ever before. Ms. Janowitz was on to something way back when.
And yet ... Slaves of New York is about a time and place gone by. In 1986, when the book was published, the "downtown art scene" still existed, even thrived. Sure, crime was a lot higher, the city was in rough shape, and people were fleeing. But the NYC art world seemed more like a community, a world unto itself that defied the city's decay, a defiant flower blooming in the tundra. Today, the downtown art scene doesn't really exist in NYC anymore. Sure, there are still big fancy galleries downtown but most of the struggling and innovative artists have been banished to the outer boroughs or out of the city altogether. The creativity, for the most part, has gone elsewhere. Go to downtown today and it's mostly fancy clothing stores and restaurants and glass buildings. The NYC art scene is much more diffuse today, less of a community and more of an abstract idea.
That's why, in many ways, Slaves of New York is more relevant today than ever. It saw where the NYC art scene and NYC itself was headed: into a world of concentrated wealth and mass economic disparities, into a world where art wasn't valued except for how much it could be sold for, where relationships were transactional and fungible, where NYC is a place so many live in but few believe really belongs to them. In many ways, this world existed then but in a somewhat more primitive form; today, it is institutionalized, absolute.
I wrote about Slaves of New York several years ago when I did a blog post about the NYC art scene in the movies. In 1989, the book was turned into a movie by the Merchant-Ivory team, better known for adaptation of classic British novels. The movie is, in a word, funky. It stars the always fabulous Bernadette Peters as Eleanor, an aspiring hat designer who lives with her awful boyfriend artist Stash in his downtown loft (she is his "slave"). The story concerns how Eleanor liberates herself from the her "slavedom" and re-starts her life as a single woman and an artist in her own right. (Some might call the story a feminist statement but, if so, it's not very a preachy one.) The movie, like the book, also concentrates on an artist named Marley Montello, a rather absurd character who intersects with Eleanor at various points.
What I love about the book and the movie is how the story is both so New York and so rooted in the 1980s art world yet also universal, timeless. It's about struggle, it's about love, it's about the complexity of all sorts of relationships, it's about wanting to become something and facing so many immovable obstacles to achieve it, it's about confronting your fears. And it's also a wonderful snapshot of NYC at a time when it was no longer a place where people really could afford to starve but where it was still possible, with very little money, to eke out an existence. Without knowing it, it was a swan song. Without knowing it, it was about the mythic downtown NYC art world -- just before the deaths of such icons as Andy Warhol and Basquiat, who ruled and defined it -- came to an end.
I remember discovering Slaves of New York and Tama Janowitz many years after the book was published and the movie came out. It was the summer after I had graduated from college, and I was working in a miserable job in a sterile corporate environment, dreaming of a life that was more artistic, more fulfilling, more ... funky. The Bravo Channel (then a great arts and independent film channel and not a reality TV grindhouse) was showing Slaves of New York endlessly. The movie and then the book inspired me. It felt like Tama Janowitz had created this story just for me. She seemed to get me -- get my anxiety, my fears, my hopes and dreams, and my romantic yearnings about the possibilities of life and NYC. No, I wasn't an artist and didn't aspire to be one (except, maybe, a writer). But Slaves of New York, Eleanor's story, seemed to be the only thing understanding me at a time when no one else seemed to. Eleanor, c'est moi (even though I'm a dude).
Slaves of New York has a proud legacy. It's a real NYC story and a poignant encapsulation of an era. But its the pure delight of the writing and the story's universal message that makes it great. And that's why, three decades after it's publication, people still read and remember it. And when my kids are old enough to read Slaves of New York, and I want them to learn more about the NYC I grew up in, it will be one of the first books I'll give them.