Books: Waxing and waning in a moral void

Cressida Connolly meets the mercenaries of Manhattan and wonders what has changed since Gatsby's day
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A Certain Age

by Tama Janowitz

Bloomsbury, pounds 12.99, 317pp

DESPITE ITS setting - New York at the end of the 20th century - is a curiously old-fashioned novel. Even the heroine's name, Florence Collins, has 19th-century undertones and the plot, concerning her desperate quest for a rich husband, is closer to Edith Wharton than Bret Easton Ellis for all its emphasis on the monster of consumerism.

The characters here observe contemporary customs; they smoke crack cocaine and shop obsessively and give each other blow-jobs in the back of taxis. But their underlying mores do not seem to have altered since the turn of the century. In The Great Gatsby, Daisy breaks Jay's heart when she tells him: "Rich girls don't marry poor boys". Unfortunately for Florence, rich boys don't seem to marry poor girls, either.

Florence is 32, blonde, beautiful, well-dressed and frantic. She has a token job at an auction house but her salary doesn't come close to paying the bills. Her overheads are high, with social expectations to match. "Most of her income went for maintenance on herself": the gym membership, leg-waxing, pedicures and highlights which total $800 a month.

And all this before she has purchased such essentials as a cashmere jumper for a boyfriend, tulle-trimmed hats, or a little silver rattle from Tiffany's for a baby shower! Thus has Florence squandered her inheritance from her dead mother. Ruin beckons if she cannot find a husband.

Janovitz is not telling us anything we don't already know, but she says it so well that this hardly matters. The moral void of New York high society has not been described so adroitly since Bonfire of the Vanities.

, too, cries out for screen dramatisation. Perhaps its author had half an eye on movies, with her set-pieces - the millionaire bird- man with a tall townhouse full of wounded pigeons; the smart Hamptons dinner party from which Florence is publicly ejected; the widowed former pin-up with her squalid house full of stray dogs - which all have a cinematic quality.

The life of the female predator in New York will be all to familiar to anyone who watched Sex in The City, a series of such unrelieved cynicism that the excesses of 1980s materialism (Dallas, Dynasty) look as innocent as a Doris Day musical by comparison. Naturally, it made compulsive viewing. covers similar ground: "There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women like herself: they worked in art galleries, on magazines, for investment companies. They all had poise, little black cocktail dresses, their clothes were dry-cleaned, they worked out at the gym... hundreds of these women, aged 25, 27, 33... But the men - their counterparts - were so few and far between."

The only kind of book these people have ever opened is the one with the phone number of their personal aromatherapist inside. They think Zen is a style of interior decoration.

Scott Fitzgerald chronicled all this in Gatsby, in 1924. The brittle, greedy milieu of the rich - in which there is no love, only desire - seems just the same. The feverish gossip, the indifference to suffering, the formalised wildness, have not changed. We probably don't need another New York-Long Island satire. But when it's as icy-true and blackly funny as this, no one is going to argue.

Cressida Connolly's collection of stories, `The Happiest Days', is published by Fourth Estate

Comments