Erica Jong Essay - Jong, Erica (Vol. 6)

Jong, Erica (Vol. 6)

Jong, Erica 1942–

An American novelist and poet, Ms Jong is for many readers no more or less than "Isadora Wing," the semi-autobiographical heroine of her bestseller Fear of Flying. In fact, however, Ms Jong has been a serious and accomplished poet for several years and her principal concern is survival, not sex. In all her work, Ms Jong struggles with being a woman, a Jew, an intellectual, a sexual being, a nonmilitant and loving being, and a successful writer. She has said that there are few role models for the successful woman writer. Most commit suicide, succumb to fears, grow old, give in. Ms Jong, like her own heroine Colette, is a survivor.

It would actually be rather hard to tell, without knowing in advance, that Isadora [in Fear of Flying] was a woman invented by a woman. She has the self-consciousness of a liberated generation—'Pia and I were "free women" (a phrase which means nothing without quotes)'—but the very gesture is borrowed from Nabokov (who saved his quotes for 'reality')…. I'm not trying sneakily to insinuate that Miss Jong is letting the side down by being subservient to the male, or something. What she's doing—impersonating men impersonating women—is probably at the moment the most direct route to honesty there is for a writer. 'How can I know what I feel unless I see what I write?' You have to piece together a possible woman; and that means appropriating all the hints you can get. There are, after all, those centuries to make up.

I've insist 'ed rather too much on Nabokov, since Miss Jong raids lots of other people too. It's just that Humbert's spectre seems a particularly revealing presence: to talk about what it might be like to be a sexually inventive woman you need analogues as lurid as HH. Fear of Flying is an original book, for all that Isadora is a fiction, a self-evident sham. The style Miss Jong gives her, with its breathless pace and its comic levitations, is an inspired and very funny pastiche. At moments her mock-moralizings on the female plight reach back to her very earliest fictional forebears…. [She's] Richardson's Pamela, or, more appropriately perhaps, Fielding's Shamela…. (pp. 90-1)

Fear of Flying is a hypothetical excursion, just as Isadora is a possible woman: disaster isn't real. She manages to evade the plot that tries to drag her down, she flies on her own. (p. 91)

Lorna Sage, "Up, Up and Away," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd.), May, 1974, pp. 90-2.

Many American-Jewish ladies have typed out their Id, chapterised it and marketed it as a novel, but none like Erica Jong. If you start on Fear of Flying, you can cross off the next two days. Her story about a female writer married to a Chinese-American shrink whom she adores, but whom she deserts for a will-o'-the-wisp English shrink misleadingly named Goodlove, is irresistible. The scene is the annual congress road between Vienna and London, with the ethnic scenery flashing past and receiving comments of staggering impoliteness, specially the views of Germany.

That fearful screeching by which liberated Id-novelists tend to draw attention to their works is wholly absent. Miss Jong raises her voice, certainly, and calls a spade by all the very latest names, but with such merriment and intelligence that it is a treat to be at the receiving end of her opinions. She says things about men which men should know, and so lovingly. She is foul to the Germans and splendid on that classic situation, the American abroad. Her portrait of a budding writer is totally convincing and her explicitness leaves one breathless. (p. 576)

Ronald Blythe, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Ronald Blythe), May 2, 1974.

Erica Jong's first book of poems, Fruits & Vegetables, was one of those things rare in poetry: a new experience. I read these poems the way you watch a trapeze act, with held breath, marvelling at the agility, the lightness of touch, the brilliant demonstration of the difficult made to look easy. The poems were brief, swift, sure of themselves; they combined a cool eighteenth-century detached wit and a talent for epigram with a virtuoso handling of that favourite seventeenth-century figure of speech, the conceit, with body as fruit as body, poem as food as poem, man as Muse, Muse as man. They did not pose as straight-from-the-soul confessions; rather they posed as artifacts, beautifully made: china figurines which were really Iron Maidens, the spikes hidden beneath the painted foliage. They were literate without being literary. They toyed with the reader, refusing to reveal the extent of their seriousness—whether they meant it. Laughter may instruct, but it may also conceal, defending the joker against anger and retaliation: a game is only a game. The "tongue … stubbornly stuck in [the] cheek" may become in fact one of the "various subtle forms of lockjaw," to quote Jong.

In Half-Lives the tongue is out of the cheek, at least part of the time. This book's cover is not lush pink but stark black. The wit is still there, but it's less like a flirtation than a duel. There's less fun, more pain. That Lizzie Borden ax, disguised in Fruits & Vegetables as a pair of embroidery scissors, is out in the open and active. The difference in tone may be felt by comparing poems with similar themes….

[Place] the cool, musing "In Sylvia Plath Country" from the earlier book beside "The Critics" and "In the Skull." Neither of the later poems is as fully realized, but both are more engaged. Both offer a version of the poet as suicide which is more complex than the lyrical drowning Ophelia of the first poem, and in the later vision the poet is less imposed upon than imposing…. Or compare the very funny third section of "Arse Poetica" with the two equally funny but much more scathing poems in Half-Lives, "Seventeen Warnings in Search of a Feminist Poem" and "Men." The poet is no longer jus' funnin', or pretending to.

The shift in tone corresponds to a shift in subject matter or rather a shift in emphasis: certain themes which were peripheral to the first book are central to the second. The games with fruits and vegetables which provided so much joy and whimsy in the first book are echoed, it is true, in the second ("The Eggplant Epithalamion," "The Woman Who Loved to Cook," "Chinese Food"), but the poet is no longer preoccupied with playing with her food. She has turned her attention instead to the Boneman, that Sexual Gothic figure who first appears in Fruits & Vegetables, materializing most fully in "The Man Under The Bed."… He is Death, sinister and frightening, but he is also a lover and attractive; he is the lure of suicide, and he is thus created by the poet herself. (pp. 99-100)

The Boneman makes only brief or indirect appearances in the first book, but he is everywhere in the second. There is a fascination with death, one's own specifically, which moves beyond the effective but two-dimensional horror-movie images of "The Man Under the Bed" to an exploration of the rationale for self-destruction. In the earlier part of the book the Death figure is dual. Half of the Boneman is a punitive, devouring, powerful male…. The other half of the Boneman is the Maiden, cast as "I" in "The Man Under the Bed." She is masochistic—interested in her own pain, as in "Paper Cuts"; "Loving the way she hates herself/much too much/to stop," as in "The Send-Off"; wallowing in "a dream of rejection," as in "Orphan."

The Boneman poems sometimes skirt the edges of Sitting-duck Poetry, in which the object of verbal attack is held to be totally guilty and allowed no way out, while the attacker goes scot-free; and the Maiden poems run the risk of turning into miniature soap operas, in which the only activities possible are the wringing of hands and the shedding of tears. (Is suffering really a function simply of being female?) What rescues the poems from these potential pitfalls is Jong's seemingly inexhaustible verbal dexterity, plus her capacity for mockery, self and other. Jong may be a romantic, but she's a romantic well aware of the absurdity of romantic excesses.

By the end of the book, though, both Boneman and Maiden are seen as what the poet has always suspected they were: incarnations of the poetic "I"—the Boneman, a dramatization of the fear of death, and the Maiden, of the desire for it. In "The Prisoner" the poet plays all the roles, including Hangman; and it is at this point, the point at which the prison is revealed as self-constructed, that the poems can transform themselves from poems about death and suicide to poems against them. In "The Lure of the Open Window," death is not a lover, but plain emptiness. (pp. 100-01)

A number of poems circle the problem—which Jong strives hard not to find a paradox—of the woman who is a writer who is also a woman, with the Siamese twins pulling uneasily against each other, the writer feeling suffocated by the woman, the woman rendered sterile by the writer…. The texture of the poetry itself has something of the still life about it. It is a curiously urban poetry, but because it's filled with images of transit systems, factories and tall buildings—it isn't—but because nothing in it ever grows or changes, except surreally. Fruits and vegetables are spotted only after they've been picked and are lying on a table; an apple may magically transmute itself into a woman, but it never changes from a green apple on a tree into a ripe apple. Objects outnumber processes, and everything, including the "I" and her lovers, is kind of hard-edged Daliesque visual metaphor—clear, incredible, paralyzed, moving if at all in frightening leaps and free-falls, like the flying chamberpots and the predatory giant feet in The Monty Python Show. It is a world created from words. As usual, Jong is aware of the difficulty: she has wanted writing to be more organic, "a tree with a voice," but has found instead

             … this emptiness.
             The hollow of the book resounding
             like an old well
             in a ruined city.

Or, stated another way,

           Sometimes the sentimentalist
           says to hell with words
           & longs to dig ditches.
           She writes of this longing, of course….
                                        (pp. 102-03)

There are two images which bracket the "writer" persona in Half-Lives: one in the first poem and one in the last. Both have to do with the writer's relationship to the reader. In "The Evidence," the writer is a fool, but a fool who talks…. In "To the Reader," the writer is a magician, pulling something out of nothing…. Both images are double-bladed. A professional fool, or so tradition has it, included in his act not only jokes made at his own expense but jests against his audience, the straight-men of the court. The reader may be invited by Jong to laugh at her, but he can't get away without a wry look at his own reflection in the funhouse mirror. A magician, on the other hand, is a trickster rather than a jester—his business, to fool the audience in a different way, to make us believe he can create and transmute. Jong's poetry is sometimes tricky, like a well-performed conjuring trick; the props show only occasionally. But a good magician's best trick is to leave some doubt in the minds of the audience: perhaps the magic is real, perhaps the magic power is real. And in Jong's best poems, it is real. We may find the fool more entertaining, but the magician is, finally, more impressive. (pp. 103-04)

Margaret Atwood, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

Although [Erica Jong] is deeply committed to femininity and its associated predicaments and experiences as her subjects, there is a more widely human purpose to her poems in Half-Lives than simply to present verse adjuncts to Women's Liberation and its fashionable line in sexual over-emphasis.

              Why does life need evidence
              Of life?
              We disbelieve it
              Even as we live.

Jarrell, of whom the sentiment and language are reminiscent, couldn't have said it better. Her poems have a stridency, an accusatory manner which too often caricatures the moral gestures she makes. They set the teeth on edge in a way which these four Jarrell-like lines don't; in these lines the saddened urgency in what she recognised is merely persuasive. Most of the time her poems attempt to enact something more authoritarian, to put the reader in a moral-poetic vice and achieve, by a sort of verbal torture, desperate agreement with what is being said.

As garrulous as America and twice as fierce, passionate, imaginative, surrealistically candid, colloquial, rushed, Jong's poems have all that engaging moral topicality which tricks the consciousness into an abject approval of what it is being exposed to as much as it convinces of her poems' genuine qualities. Poets like Jong are usually well liked. They give it all away with unswerving hubris, a fresh and turbulent self-confidence, and such an energetic assurance of how right they are, how marvellously free and tortured, that a reader willing to recognise the talent behind it all might end up not so much enjoying the poems as thoroughly dissatisfied with himself or herself.

The nastiness of new truths is what we like in such poets, the appearance of a Zeitgeist which, because it is snarling and angry, we declare is the real thing. Poems should come on as strong as they can. There is a danger, however, of such a poet finding it virtually impossible to resist the moral arrogance and cant of attitudes said to be new, of liberations said to be afoot and needed. That does happen in Half-Lives (mostly when she is writing about sex and men); but it does appear the exception, more like a failure to maintain originality. (pp. 72-3)

At the same time, there is the powerful impression in Half-Lives that her entire output rests squarely on the tradition of the crazed exposure of the American ego. I happen to like that, and recognise it as having produced the best things in Berryman, Lowell and Plath. While it can be tire-some and repetitious, ponderous and self-important, or downright sloppy, subjective revelations in the sometimes zany manner of Jong can produce a clownish humour and irreverence of the sort which British practitioners find difficult to bring off. For instance, in a poem called "The Nose", her invention is sparkling—insane, but sparkling; and probably intended as a woman's contemptuous appraisal of men's phallic obsessions. The same subject is sent-up in "On the Air." Again her performance is what makes the poem succeed, a high-spirited cruelty inflicted by one gender on the other. Snippets could be quoted; but Jong's method is primarily one of narrative; cumulating bits of invention finally add up to a characteristic poem.

Formal mannerisms are evaded, and the principle of control behind her poems appears to be simply an intuitive sense of knowing how to maintain excitement and pointedness. Her skills lie in the invention of narratives, stories, and situations; her language has fresh American novelty, but her similes—which she uses tirelessly—are jaded in comparison with Plath's. Her language as a whole appears pressured out of the sensuousness it would like to possess by a high-pitched tone—like someone screaming the word "peach."

What she seeks is to blaze with red-hot intensity; but she spins poems out to a length that a more informed sense of control would not permit. Some of the writing looks positively easy, or feeble. An American poetry-speech takes over instead of language. When I shut my eyes, I get a picture of Jong delivering her nightmare monologues to an electronic mirror surrounded with microphones through which pre-recorded applause is amplified.

In spite of these reservations, Jong's talent is impressive. What I think she does best is making what might be called surreal documentaries, as in "Paper Cuts." Eliot, although he was writing of the chances for a poetic drama, called this "a simplification of current life into something rich and strange." By taking a representative American secretary and her dilemma, Jong mythologises present time. The poem is savagely critical.

    I have seen the mailroom women like lost letters
    frayed around the edges.
    I have seen the xerox room men
    shuffling in and out among each other
    like cards in identical decks.

These lines are ordinary enough; the dehumanised have been, sometimes unhappily, the subjects, or victims, of poets at least since Eliot and Pound, who, in contemplating such matters, dehumanised themselves into the bargain. The lesson has been learned, however, and the decency of such poems now lies in the power with which a poet can invest his hopeless compassion. Randall Jarrell wrote this sort of poem best of all, and it is no disparagement of Jong's poem to say it doesn't reach his standard. Jong, however, ends her poem with her own uniquely grotesque ritual. "I bring you chains of paperclips instead of emeralds", the secretary says, and this sacrificial offering becomes an appalling invitation…. (pp. 73-4)

Douglas Dunn, in Encounter (© 1974 by Encounter Ltd.), December, 1974.

[More] than one reviewer compared Fear of Flying to Philip Roth's novel [Portnoy's Complaint], but the problem is that too many novels are like Roth's novel. To form a sub-genre by imitating only one facet of a good writer's minor work is to seriously handicap art. "I envy Alexander Portnoy," the heroine says. Apparently Portnoy's voice is the only suitable choice for the modern feminist confessional novel. It's a relief to have sex handled without either hysteria or coy restraint, and the flat recounting of exotic detail may in some cases be good rhetoric…. Isadora Wing, Jong's protagonist, talks about sex with few reservations or niceties. But she speaks with all the flatulence of a stenographer—which the author doesn't seem to realize. (p. 88)

Perhaps it is the explicit Portnoy impulse which corrupts this novel and others like it. "I have told these events as plainly as possible," we read, "because nothing I might say to embellish them could possibly make them more shocking." Beyond this, there is the public expectation that women think like this all the time, that the stereotype of raw concupiscence (parodied so deftly by Richard Brautigan, who gets rewarded with the irony of sexist putdowns) is enough to sustain a work of art. Jong reveals her ultimately social-realist attitude by coming out and saying it: "No writer can ever tell the truth about life, namely that it is much more interesting than any book. And no writer can tell the truth about people—which is that they are much more interesting than any characters." Then why write novels at all?

Fear of Flying, of course, is not read as a novel. With nothing else to distract, it is read as a "story", the same way people have been reading Rose Kennedy's story. But one doesn't have to give up this social relevance, and its following popularity, to write something that's really fiction. The career of Anaïs Nin, for example, shows that one can be the consummate literary artist—indeed, be the very symbol of it—while making statements pertinent to the feminine sensibility. Nin, of course, waited three decades for critical sensibilities to catch up with her work. But today readers will create the popularity for aesthetically inventive fiction. (pp. 88-9)

Jerome Klinkowitz, in The North American Review (reprinted by permission from The North American Review; copyright © 1975 by the University of Northern Iowa), Summer, 1975.

[Jong's poems in Loveroot and Here Comes] are so wholly devoid of literary merit that one cannot discuss them seriously as "poems." Indeed, they shouldn't—and wouldn't—be reviewed at all if F of F hadn't catapulted Jong to literary stardom. What does matter is not that the poetry itself but that a writer like Jong could and has become an integral part of the academic establishment…. In the '50s, of course everyone read Bonjour Tristesse, but it wasn't "taught" in college courses for the very good reason that any moderately intelligent person could read it without the help of classroom aids. Sagan was regularly photographed at the races or at cocktail parties but she didn't lecture at the Sorbonne.

All changed, changed utterly. Erica Jong teaches writing workshops and reads her poetry to large college audiences; F of F is required reading in many courses, and Jong's address to the Bookseller's Convention, "Writing a First Novel," was reprinted in the scholarly journal "Twentieth Century Literature." No doubt Here Comes and Loveroot will also find their way into the curriculum. Partly due to the advent of women's studies and popular culture, writers like Jong have become academic property. Ironically, Jong is neither a feminist (witness the overt dislike of women expressed in the poem "Wrinkles") nor a genuine pop novelist like Jacqueline Susann. But the Academy, increasingly anxious to be "in touch" with "what's going on," has deceived itself into thinking that because Jong refers knowingly to Keats and Neruda, Freud and Laing, Sartre and Roland Barthes, she must be a serious writer whose novel is representative of its time. Of course Jong's work is representative of something in our culture but then so are "Glamour" and "McCall's." Such texts may be fascinating sociological documents but to confuse a book like Loveroot with poetry is not only foolish but damaging to our students. (p. 2)

Marjorie Perloff, "The Joy of Jong," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), July 6, 1975, pp. 1-2.