Few young writers have benefited less from their meteoric rise to fame than Tama Janowitz, whose name -- like those of Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney -- has become shorthand for the tawdry excess of the era she satirized in “Slaves of New York,” her bestselling 1986 short story collection. Before “Slaves,” she was on her way to a more conventional career, having racked up a string of blue-chip awards, a decently reviewed novel (“American Dad”) and stories in the New Yorker, all within a few years of leaving Barnard College. After “Slaves,” she became a kooky celebrity, gracing magazine covers, talk show couches and gossip columns. The novels that followed were largely (and rightfully) dismissed by critics, ignored by readers.
More recently, Janowitz has made a bid to be taken seriously, with works based on canonical texts: “By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha”), “A Certain Age” (Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth”) and now “Peyton Amberg,” a retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.” Like Emma Bovary, Amberg is a working-class girl whose only commodity -- according to her bipolar mother -- is her unearthly beauty: “pale skin, her eyes such a fake blue ... that people always asked her if she was wearing colored contacts ... big bust, tiny waist, boyish hips.” After dating a few losers -- “bulky sweating” men who shout “I’m gonna pop!” as they bed her -- she finds a nice Jewish dentist who views Peyton as a “sexy princess” to be rescued from her seedy circumstances. Barry Amberg’s imperious mother sees Peyton as a gauche shiksa gold digger but eventually succumbs to her son’s whining, plans a six-figure wedding and launches an amusing campaign to remake Peyton in her own image.
Briefly satisfied with the comfortable trappings of her new life -- Jamaican honeymoon, Upper West Side two-bedroom -- Peyton soon discovers that her Playboy-ready looks could have bought her a “fancier model” husband and life. She meets a wealthy businessman who buys her couture, introduces her to Euro-trash society, cokes her up and, of course, beds her. “How stupid could she have been, imagining that Barry ... represented class and social status she had never dreamed she could achieve? She saw now that they were only boorish
Peyton stumbles through the next 25 years, traveling, acquiring massive credit card bills and having sad affairs with a moronic rancher, a perverse comedian, a homicidal Chinese gangster and so on. The novel begins with Peyton, 50, brushing lice from her hair in a cheap Antwerp hotel. Moving between past and present, Janowitz -- in slack, breathless prose -- reveals exactly how Peyton ended up broke, dissolute, badly beaten, the tattered victim of her own shallow aspirations.
Janowitz clearly intends this to be taken as a postfeminist parable: the beautiful woman undone by a society that values appearance above all. Peyton, a crude and inarticulate soul, constantly has epiphanies along the lines of “What use was a woman unless she was young and some man wanted to sleep with her?”
But her complaints seem less plainspoken social analysis than absurd whining. Her problem stems not from societal mores but the pathetic swamp of her own brain. Like many, if not all, of Janowitz’s heroines, Peyton is pathologically shy, barely able to make conversation. Unlike those other characters, Peyton’s sense of alienation has rendered her incapable of empathy and, thus, monstrous. “There was only herself and a vague awareness that others did exist, but only as flickers of light seen on the periphery.” Flaubert’s tale is tragic, undeniably. Janowitz’s is merely pathetic.