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INTERESTING AND FUNNY, BUT OLD NEWS

A CERTAIN AGE

By Tama Janowitz
Doubleday
317 pages, $23.95

New York City is, among many other things, a gloriously literary place. It's long been the tradition-steeped epicenter of the publishing world, the scene of great books, and the home of great writers.

Tama Janowitz belongs to a small but redoubtable subset of those writers: bred-to-the-bone hometown girls. She's a true New Yorker, a specialist, a card-carrying member of an unapologetically exclusive club.

"A Certain Age" brings us the spectacle of Janowitz playing the young warrior, taking on a Godzilla-worthy challenge to her clan: New York Society, in all its grand nobility, poisonous silliness and frequent tragedy. It's an adversary oft assailed, though still unbeaten, by those who've come before her.

In fact, I'm tempted to simply summarize this book as "Edith Wharton on crack" and go make myself a sandwich, but Janowitz is an important writer who's earned a slightly more serious approach. Still, "A Certain Age" is notably similar in story structure and general milieu to "The Age of Innocence," "Sense and Sensibility," and other novels that share its subject. There's a great tradition of female writers who focus their powers of observation and description on the genteel brutality of upper class life; "A Certain Age" is simply the latest installation in a long-running serial.

And thus it is that from the outset, "A Certain Age" harkens nicely back to the Grandmama of them all, Jane Austen herself. Its opening paragraph could well have read (but does not read): "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman, in possession of no discernible skills or talents, aging slowly but indisputably, vain and ignorant enough to hang her self-esteem from the wobbly hook of her social position in a cutthroat place like New York City, must be in want of a husband."

This is the predicament in which Janowitz's heroine, Florence Collins, finds herself. Florence, seemingly absent the day they passed out heart and moral fiber, is a classic anti-hero -- a semi-tragic end seems inevitable for her, though her story is told cleverly enough that it's possible to root for Florence in a wan, curious, half-hearted way.

Florence seems content to scurry along through life like a well-dressed insect, so long as she can amass the creature comforts necessary to protect herself from the giant, metaphorical can of Raid that hovers above her head. What's in that Raid can is the fate presumed for a woman to be worse than death: husbandless middle age.

Tama Janowitz came on the scene in the 1980s -- accompanied by Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and others -- in a blaze of well-deserved young-buck glory. "Slaves of New York," her first book of short stories, captured the zeitgeist of life on the fringes of '80s urban prosperity (to say nothing of sanity.) And she was funny. She's still funny, which makes "A Certain Age" bearable in light of what it so surgically exposes about human female nature.

One device Janowitz employs to highlight Florence's fundamental soullessness was used to electrifying result by her literary classmate Ellis in his novel "American Psycho." Janowitz lingers, as Ellis did, on descriptions of the material perks of upper class life, detailing outfits, furniture, restaurant meals, and exclusive New York locales as lovingly as if they were meant to reveal character. And in a way, they do.

As writers who came of age in the hyper-materialistic '80s, Janowitz and her contemporaries have frequently used their work to expose the moral vacuity that can lurk beneath a veneer of success, and its mountain of attendant trappings.

I'm not certain this is exactly the "point" of "A Certain Age," but it's certainly one of the truths it slam-dunks home. Many women will put down this book feeling disgusted, simultaneously horrified and relieved that "there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I." The personal Hell into which Florence willingly descends is a nightmare worst-case scenario for women all over the western world.

If Janowitz does have a message to communicate, it seems to be that the cockroaches will survive Armageddon -- that life's bottom-feeders will always find a bottom to nourish them. Florence is your basic high-class cockroach, as common, as timeless, and as resilient.

Jane and Edith awakened us to the existence of these creatures, and now Tama sends her modern update down the catwalk for us, so we might gasp at and recoil from her.

Janowitz spends a lot of pages conducting her flea circus, forcing the pretty insect she's created to jump through hoop after hoop in pursuit of her brass ring -- a life of cosseted privilege. The course of Florence's tale of woe is peppered with the little absurdities, details and skewered perspectives that are Janowitz's story-telling trademarks.

"A Certain Age" is an interesting and funny book, and it successfully does what it sets out to do. But what it does has been done before, and better, by some of the few writers who indisputably outclass her.

I admire the chutzpah Janowitz displays as she rises to such a time-honored challenge. But "A Certain Age" serves only to remind us of what we already know: that a love of money causes a lot of problems, and that as long as there's a New York, it'll have its slaves.

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