Ariane Sherine

One long moanfest

Scream, her ‘memoir of glamour and dysfunction’, is a relentless moanfest but never less than readable

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.

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