Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction
“While the reader can feel compassion for Ms. Janowitz . . . he would not wish in a million years to . . . ever again read another volume of her memoirs.”
The sensations experienced by the reader of Scream, Tama Janowitz’s new memoir, are amazingly similar to those of a hapless dinner guest who finds himself or herself seated next to a tablemate who is bound and determined to over-share the bleak details of his life, with over-long dollops of eye contact and physical contact—damp hands resting on forearms for emphasis.
Indeed, in time, the title seems more a command than a representation of the text.
And yet, with a title like Scream, the reader cannot say that he was not warned.
Tama Janowitz is unhappy. And more than a little angry. She has less money than she’d like. And very likely less appreciation as a writer, a mother, daughter, wife, sister and, let’s face it, human being, than she feels entitled to. In the pages of her memoir, she makes her case. She did, after all, look after her mother in her waning days, and God knows that wasn’t easy.
As Janowitz puts it:
“I want to try to explain how I ended up living in Schuyler County [New York] absolutely dead broke, in the middle of nowhere, and doing nothing but visiting my mother in a nursing home, trying to clean up her house, which has books up to the ceiling in every single room, and going to the emergency room in the middle of the night when the home calls to tell me Mom’s fallen out of bed, and they have no one to take her to get checked. My writing career’s gone to hell in a handbasket, and then there’s my kid: she’s not happy. It’s hard changing schools in eleventh grade.
“There’s more. It all goes on, the minutiae, the nonliving, while my brother, who’s about to retire, is off to Denmark, Hawaii, touring the stately homes in England with is wife, and—when he comes up to visit, once a year—berates me about Mom’s house not being kept clean. Right. There’s mold on the walls . . . because it hasn’t been painted in thirty years.”
Like the dinner guest, the reader attempts to place his attention elsewhere, but the author, impassioned, irate, continues:
“Look at my mother. She was about the most decent, moral, good person on the planet, although she did make a porn film once. It was private and she did it before it was something everybody did, and I don’t really see what that has to do with morality. She was just doing what my dad wanted, since he liked girl-on-girl action, just as he loves lawsuits. So does my brother. Lawsuits, I mean. I don’t know about girl-on-girl.”
At this point, mercy of mercies, the chapter ends.
Has there ever been another book in which the reader wishes above all else, that the author would simply take a breath? Or a pill? Or a vacation at the shore?
The world inhabited by Tama Janowitz is a small one. A gray one. One in which is always seems to be very cold, unless it is very, very hot. One in which the signage posted over the aisles of the grocery store are to be obsessed over, even photographed and offered as some sort of proof of wrongdoing. One in which the day-glow warning stickers placed on containers of misplaced recyclables are cause for fretful ruminations and branches broken off a twenty-year-old rhododendron bush that has grown out over an icy sidewalk lead to struggles, police tape, threatening notes, and lawyer’s letters—anything other than simply trimming the branches back during the wrong season for trimming.
Fathers send hate letters. Brothers threaten lawsuits. Accountants make up numbers. And contractors become boyfriends, even if they are uncaring, boorish, and largely disinterested.
All of which illustrates (A) what the reader had rather suspected that life in the small towns in upstate New York to be like, and (B) that anything with a title like Scream is more likely to have someone in a fright mask stabbing teenagers than it is to be a chic, urbane laugh-riot.
When the shoe is on the other foot, when Janowitz is reading and not writing, the rules apparently shift. About reading, she writes,
“When I read a book I just want a bunch of interesting stuff to happen, adventure-wise, like In Cold Blood, without too much musing and thinking and philosophizing.
“I don’t want a moment of epiphany. I want to go someplace worse, different, more interesting than where I am. So when I stop reading, I can feel good, even if I’m in a cramped economy seat on an overnight flight, or in a filthy kitchen where I should be doing dishes.”
But what about me, Tama? Don’t I deserve the same?
Along the way, our author drops little bombshells that indicate that perhaps things haven’t always been as bleak as all that. Like when she mentions how her second (of 11) books, Slaves of New York, became a bestseller and how it became a movie and all, first optioned by Andy Warhol and then, after he died, re-optioned and made by the team at Merchant Ivory, although, apparently, it “was horribly reviewed . . . and only now is considered a gay classic and is screened often to sold-out audiences.”
Or when she remembers that another book was made into a movie in Russia and that she took her mother and daughter and went on over to watch the film get made. Or when she reveals that she was good friends with Lou Reed and his wife, Sylvia, except that Sylvia kept on showing Tama all her new pairs of expensive shoes until she, Tama, just could not take it any more.
Or when she tells us all about her good buddy Andy Warhol, who was friend enough to take her along on his Sunday morning flea market crawls, but was too cheap to take her out to dinner, except in places where he had advertising trade because of Interview Magazine. Or the time she was on the cover of New York Magazine. Or when she dazzled Jackie Kennedy by wearing next season’s fashions this season . . .
These too-brief asides aside (our author has somehow convinced herself that her readers would rather have an in-depth understanding of her father’s various girlfriends than any real information about Warhol or Lou Reed or anyone named Kennedy), the rest is rather depressing and dour. And the book’s chapters, most weighing in at two or three pages, seem, at the same time, to be under-informative and way too long.
In Scream, Tama Janowitz illustrates a methodology common to those whose ongoing memoirs have been exhausted volumes before their most recent incarnation: by chopping her narrative into bite-sized bits and then apparently throwing them all in a hat, allowing fate to determine the timeline and its multitudinous jumps, the author seeks to make art where only an accumulation of angry complaints exists.
While the reader can feel compassion for Ms. Janowitz and her many travails, he would not wish in a million years to enter into a dinnertime conversation with her. Or to ever again read another volume of her memoirs.