Age of Dissonance

The heroine of Tama Janowitz's latest novel has neither sense nor sensibility.

In book after book, Tama Janowitz seems bent on writing her own topsy-turvy version of Animal Farm. The characters in her novels are various beasts and reptiles disguised by a thin veil of human flesh. As the loopy mom in Janowitz’s 1996 trailer-park novel By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee matter-of-factly states, “There’s only one percent genetic difference between chimps and us. And as everyone knows, chimps are nasty, vicious, dirty animals.”

A Certain Age by Tama Janowitz (Doubleday, $23.95)

In Janowitz’s latest effort, A Certain Age, the chimps have gone rabid; they’re licking their lips at the sight of all the other chimps. Like her name-making debut, Slaves of New York, a hilarious satire of downtown Manhattan in the ’80s, this new novel documents the mores, foibles, and habits of the city’s rarified social scene. This time it’s the Madison Avenue/Montauk axis, where women prowl for millionaire husbands while they hold down low-paying prestige jobs at art galleries and magazines. Set loose in this jungle with a rapidly dwindling inheritance and no pedigree, hyper-pragmatic Florence Collins grows more desperate by the hour. At 32, she’s not involved in any relationships deeper than a wading pool, and she’s already planning her first plastic surgery. But instead of bagging a CEO, she falls prey to her own character flaws, not to mention the vile creatures around her.

Staying at a house in the Hamptons, Florence acquiesces to the libidinous urgings of the husband of her hostess. Then, baby-sitting their daughter at the beach, she falls asleep while the girl nearly drowns. When news of her Long Island holiday hits the gossip columns, Florence falls off her already precarious perch in Manhattan society. Spiralling downward fast, she loses her job at a third-tier auction house and starts stalking an unctuous Italian crackhead. Even her one die-hard suitor, whom she refuses to take seriously because he works as an advocate for the homeless, turns his back on her. All the while, various vulturelike acquaintances wait for their chance to peck at her remains.

The humorously self-deprecating heroine ࠬa Bridget Jones features in quite a few novels these days. As with many of these protagonists, Florence has one major problem: She’s pathetic. Like Eleanor in Slaves of New York, Florence is annoyingly passive and centerless. It’s very difficult to care about anyone—male or female, real or fictional—who’s so essentially empty. Here, for example, is Florence after a demeaning date with the Italian: “In the taxi he insisted she stop by his place for a nightcap. It was on her way home, but still, she was uncertain. If she went back with him, he would expect to sleep with her. What else did she have going for her except that she hadn’t yet slept with him?”

As a satirist, Janowitz reserves the right to present unsympathetic characters as long as there’s some fun to be had with them, but A Certain Age isn’t funny. In the past, Janowitz has nailed hypocrisy with her deceptively flippant style. The trick to this comedy is characters who are outsiders in both circumstance and outlook, yet who don’t quite realize that they’re outsiders. Florence, in contrast, wants nothing but to conform, and her craven need for social status and money—she’s wholly uninterested in corollaries like education, travel, or career—is anything but endearing.

A Certain Age namechecks Edith Wharton twice, and the title itself nods toward The Age of Innocence, another novel featuring an aging single woman trapped by circumstance. The point here—driven home by Florence’s repetitive musings—is that the highest caste of New York society has changed little since the 1800s: It’s still only men who have power, and a woman’s status is still contingent upon marriage. This may or may not be true, but with a main character as vacant as Florence Collins, no reader will want to stick around ’til the end of the story to find out.