Tama Janowitz’s memoir is a relentlessly cheerless and bitter collection of vignettes. Between tales of her purportedly miserly, creepy and emotionally manipulative father, who suggests that Janowitz enter a wet T-shirt contest aged 15, and her estranged and vicious brother, who tries to sue her despite he being rich and her virtually penniless, the Janowitz clan are portrayed as singularly defective. Struggling to care for her mother, who suffers from dementia (‘My mother is lying on her side with her diapers full of shit’), and fretting about her own teenage daughter, who regularly smokes marijuana, Janowitz is convinced that Tolstoy is wrong and no family is truly happy — though in fairness, she seems determined to fail to embrace happiness at all costs.
No character or situation escapes her opprobrium. There’s her brother’s wife, who insults her mother; endless disputes with everyone from irate neighbours to displeased bookkeepers; an ignorant care home nurse; a smelly, dirty stripper; ill-advised property purchases; a disastrous trip to Israel; and, throughout, the dismal state of Janowitz’s finances. We’re nearly a third of the way through the book before we reach any of the promised glamour of the title; until then, it’s wall-to-wall dysfunction. Even when Janowitz starts hanging out with celebrities, including Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, there are broken friendships and recriminations, a strange obsession with money, a fruitless trip to France and a lack of judgment when meeting the Sex Pistols. While moderately entertaining, the book is also the most egregious moanfest. Surely, you think, something good must have happened in nearly 60 years of life?
And yet, amidst the gloom, there is the odd uproariously funny anecdote, such as an offhand account of the time Janowitz defaced a rabbi’s doorbells as a teenager, to the probable chagrin of those living next door. (‘I’m sure those neighbours didn’t like it, but they weren’t Jewish and I doubt they had a way to reach the widowed rabbi in Israel. Anyway, what could they have said? ‘Your tenant’s daughter painted the doorbells so now they look like nipples?’) We are also treated to her disproportionate fury with the local grocery store’s labelling system, where she rails against buns being listed separately from bread. But the glimpses of humour are fleeting; we are soon back to the interminable whining.
As with the characters in her bestseller Slaves of New York, Janowitz proves a cold and unsympathetic protagonist. There is a lack of empathy and a harshness to her recollections, which is uncommon in memoirs; most writers tread more carefully, perhaps in fear that the people they depict might react unfavourably. Janowitz doesn’t seem to care. It is clear that she loves her daughter and late mother greatly, but isn’t given to sentimentality; there are only a few pages devoted to her positive feelings for them, while she writes numerous chapters on the shortcomings of the relatives she despises.
Fittingly, of her writing career, she says:
I did not write books to be liked. I was not interested in writing likeable books. I was not interested in providing the reader with a hero or heroine with whom she or he could identify, who had to overcome obstacles and in the end triumphed. I wasn’t writing about ‘nice’ people or people who were redeemed. I found rotten people to be more interesting.
Accordingly, pretty much everyone we meet is found wanting in some way or other, including Janowitz herself. (‘I’m not saying I’m normal, either,’ she shrugs defensively, on revealing that she owns eight poodles.)
Still, despite being less a glass half empty, more a glass full of vinegar, Scream is never less than readable. It provides fascinating insights into the life of a writer in 1970s and 1980s New York; when Janowitz laments not keeping a diary during these decades, you share her disappointment. And it is start-lingly, almost frighteningly honest: I half wondered whether, given her fear of litigation, Janowitz might get sued again, or at least permanently excommunicated by her family. But you don’t get the feeling that she would be surprised by this, or even particularly bothered. Her life may be bleak, but at least she has succeeded in writing an eminently dislikeable book.