I’ll say this much for Tama Janowitz. With her new novel, A Certain Age, she’s managed to create one of the least likable characters in modern fiction history. More self-obsessed than Portnoy, more marriage-crazed than Bridget Jones, this skinny blond twit is truly horrid. The question is, do you want to spend 317 pages in her company? That would be no.
”A Certain Age” delves into the not-exactly-uncharted territory of Manhattan’s little-black-dress cocktail-party culture. It’s much the same scene that Janowitz explored in ”Slaves of New York,” the best-selling 1986 short-story collection that made her quasi-famous, sort of a Jay McInerney in designer skirts.
The book traces Florence’s relentless downward spiral: She has an affair with her friend’s husband and is banished from their East Hampton house. She loses $25,000 on a sketchy restaurant investment. She puts on a couple of pounds, the result of too many vodka cranberries and too much pasta with squid ink. She rebuffs the only morally decent character — a homeless-advocate lawyer — to shtup a slick Italian wine heir and a menacing cabdriver. Eventually, our Florence is reduced to smoking crack and, worse, taking public transportation. All in all, a depressing affair.
With such a relatively twist-free plot and such aggressively offensive characters, the writing had better be damn good — we’re talking Ellison, or at the very least, Easton Ellis. Alas, it’s not. Janowitz is unafraid of embracing the cliché (when she’s depressed, Florence — you guessed it — devours chocolate ice cream). And the author repeatedly bashes us over the head with her New York-is-superficial thesis: ”Manhattan was a shabby world, inhabited by cardboard cutouts, and she walked among them.”
To be fair, the book is not entirely devoid of wit. Sprinkled throughout are a few entertainingly acerbic lines. Consider this passage on Florence’s jadedness: ”She had no morals. Who did? Only a Red Guard, beating an old professor in the name of Mao Tse-tung.” Likewise, there’s an amusing scene where Florence suffers through a Mozart concert — music she thinks is fine in the background of period films, but nothing more. Those glimmers, however, are far too scarce.
My advice: Janowitz should return to short stories. ”Slaves of New York” made for a much sharper book because we didn’t have enough time to learn to hate the characters.