Erica Jong Essay - Jong, Erica (Vol. 4)

Jong, Erica (Vol. 4)

Jong, Erica 1943?–

Ms Jong is an American poet and novelist, best known for the quasi-autobiographical novel, Fear of Flying.

Jong's best verse comes from … writing about men and women in a memorable vein of lightly mocking comedy….

[In Half-Lives] Jong writes in a serial mode, in which five lines, or five stanzas, will all begin with the same phrase, … and because her subject is nearly always some form of the double-bind or the Laingian knot, the poems need to be seen whole. The form of iteration, though, threatens to hem her in; there are, after all, other figures of speech besides anaphora. Inside her rigid frames of syntax, a playful metaphorical mind is at work, busy in plentiful invention of little fables. If the whimsical and the bitter sometimes become the petulantly cute, there are nevertheless biting poems about women's feelings, and clever women's half-unconscious stratagems of desirability….

The tone is authoritative, knowledgeable and diagnostic; it admits of no appeal; de te fabula, it says to its women readers. I can't quite imagine what it says to its men readers.

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 12, 1973, p. 6.

Erica Jong's best poems (in "Fruits and Vegetables" and "Half-Lives") are quick tempo fables of sexual appetite vs. inhibiting intelligence. The woman in them would like to be a bawdy free spirit, but she drags a ball-and-chain with her: "I fall in love as a kind of research project." Jong can be sharply funny, as in her "Seventeen Warnings in Search of a Feminist Poem"….

Her besetting liability is cuteness—a willed abandon and rehearsed tossing of the hair. With exuberant, sometimes unconvincing bravado, her poems record her effort to change herself from the serious, studious girl she once was….

Erica Jong isn't, so far, a good novelist. After a nervy, arresting take-off, she pads out "Fear of Flying" with lengthy, quasi-autobiographical detours … and limps home to a pat landing. Yet her book has plenty of energy, some good (and some terrible) wisecracks and a generous showing of distinct, determined talent.

Walters Clemons, "Beware of the Man," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1973, p. 114.

Erica Jong's first novel, "Fear of Flying,"… feels like a winner. It has class and sass, brightness and bite. Containing all the cracked eggs of the feminist litany, her soufflé rises with a poet's afflatus. She sprinkles on the four-letter words as if women had invented them; her cheerful sexual frankness brings a new flavor to female prose. Mrs. Jong's heroine, Isadora Wing, surveying the "shy, shrinking, schizoid" array of women writers in English, asks, "Where was the female Chaucer?," and the Wife of Bath, were she young and gorgeous, neurotic and Jewish, urban and contemporary, might have written like this. "Fear of Flying" not only stands as a notably luxuriant and glowing bloom in the sometimes thistly garden of "raised" feminine consciousness but belongs to, and hilariously extends, the tradition of "Catcher in the Rye" and "Portnoy's Complaint"—that of the New York voice on the couch, the smart kid's lament. Though Isadora Wing, as shamelessly and obsessively as Alexander Portnoy, rubs the reader's nose in the fantasies and phobias and family slapstick of growing up, she avoids the solipsism that turns Roth's hero unwittingly cruel; nor does she, like Holden Caulfield, though no less sensitive to phoniness, make of innocence an ideal. She remains alert to this world….

As a creator of scenes and characters, Mrs. Jong is at her best in the present…. Here, comedy becomes satire and distress becomes drama. The prose flies. Throughout, the poet's verbal keenness rarely snags the flow of breathy vernacular; a few false shifts of tone, an occasional automatism of phrase …, a few clammy touches of jargon insignificantly mar a joyously extended performance. The novel is so full, indeed, that one wonders whether the author has enough leftover life for another novel. Fearless and fresh, tender and exact, Mrs. Jong has arrived non-stop at the point of being a literary personality; may she now travel on toward Canterbury.

John Updike, "Jong Love," in The New Yorker, December 17, 1973, pp. 149-53.

[Fear of Flying] attempts to explore the female predicament, but the world, the real world, is so strained through the sensibilities of the author that we don't believe in it—and therefore can't appreciate the predicament. The characters exist only in the author's mind, and have been swiftly categorized there in terms of what they stand for. What counts about them is whether or not they have a liberated consciousness and how they feel about the heroine.

There are pitfalls in the dear diary genre. Its personal, almost editorial, tone gives the author too much opportunity to tell us about her attitudes. She has no need to re-create experience—all she has to do is tell us about it. So her book becomes a reformist tract on the one hand and on the other a highly personal account of one woman's reactions, digestion and tastes. There is no artistic distance between the author and her subject, and hence no objectivity. We don't know what she's like; we only know what she thinks she's like. We learn nothing about the world, only about how she feels. The action all takes place in the mind of the author-protagonist, or in this case her not-so-private parts.

The cause of women's liberation has given rise, thus far, to a good deal of dear diary, a kind of literature that by its nature can do little to advance the ideal goals of the movement. The genre's narrow focus makes liberation unattainable. It expresses the author's indisposition to get out of the prison of herself.

Ellen Hope Meyer, "The Aesthetics of 'Dear Diary'," in The Nation, January 12, 1974, pp. 55-6.

At moments, [Half-Lives, a book of poems] seems obsessed—with sex, with death, with solitude and missed connections—and there is an occasional uneasiness that the extraordinary energy of this poet might suddenly turn in and begin devouring itself. "Your own mouth will eat you / if you don't watch out," she warns in Chinese Food. Indeed, her energy is voracious, and images of food, eating, hunger are scattered everywhere in the book, making a powerful central metaphor that shapes a haunting, energetic vision…. The cry of 'hunger' is elemental in this book, but too steady to need labored emphasis: the hunger is for wholeness, the appetite for being alive. Roethke provides the epigraph: "The notion of emptiness generates passion"; and to the end of the book this generous talent takes possession of virtually everything that comes its way, lovingly, aggressively, honestly. Erica Jong doesn't have much use for the kind of "delicacy" that comes from concealment, yet even these poems show a raw edge, their revelations are clear and earned.

These poems are savvy and savage, full of tenderness, but guided by a tough, resilient spirit. This is especially so in the many poems here about being a woman, about the terrible beautiful difference it can make. The feminism of these poems is deeply engaged, not with political style or public posture, but with the radical and intimate anguish of trying to be a whole human being….

Even though it is uneven, with some poems a little slapdash and hurried, [the book] is not brilliant dabbling by a long shot, but a nimble craft aiming not for elaborate structures, but trying to keep pace with a quick and penetrating vision. Jong imagines with a wholeness that does not shy away from the passions of emptiness, and with a vigor very much in touch with world, body and a consciousness neither content nor deceived by a desire for a whole life.

Leroy Searle, in Poetry (© 1974 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1974, pp. 363-65.

[Fear of Flying] has a helplessness, a vulnerability that makes it very likable, and in some backhanded way successful. The flaws in the writing parallel the heroine's mistakes in her life—indeed are her mistakes reappearing in another form, since she is revisiting her life in the writing, compounding her (usually generous) errors the second time around. And then at the risk of sounding like a man who'll forgive anything for a couple of wisecracks, I must say there are some very good jokes in this novel: "Think of those Egyptians who built the pyramids, for example. Did they sit around worrying about whether they were Equal Opportunity Employers?" "He was a medievalist and before you could say 'Albigensian Crusade' he'd tell you the story of his life." I particularly like the subtle insinuation of "the first of my many psychiatrists, a short doctor whose name was Schrift."

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1974 by NYREV, Inc.), March 21, 1974, p. 20.

With such continual and insistent reference to her cherished valve, Erica Jong's witless heroine [Isadora Wing in Fear of Flying] looms like a mammoth pudenda, as roomy as the Carlsbad Caverns, luring amorous spelunkers to confusion in her plunging grottoes….

Isadora is also a feminist, interlarding her memoir with grim quotations from Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and tendentious ones from Freud and Rudolf Hess. She says she 'wanted to write War and Peace or nothing,' and having chosen the latter, seems to have settled for the ambition of being gamahuched from here to eternity. But there are problems: 'the big problem was how to make your feminism jibe with your unappeasable hunger for male bodies. It wasn't easy.'

This crappy novel, misusing vulgarity to the point where it becomes purely foolish, picturing woman as a hapless organ animated by the simplest ridicule, and devaluing imagination in every line …, represents everything that is to be loathed in American fiction today. It does not have the excuse of humour, nor is its pretence to topicality anything but tedious. That it was written with a grant … from the National Endowment for the Arts should surprise no one already familiar with the ways American money is used, though is ample justification for any of us to refuse paying his taxes this year.

Paul Theroux, "Hapless Organ," in New Statesman, April 19, 1974, p. 554.

Fear of Flying has pulled far ahead of the pack in the race for the "women's novel of the year" award. And it probably will win, for the author sees in life precisely what the women's movement has told her to see. She finds drama and significance in exactly those places—and only those places—where the movement claims it exists….

The prose style is snappy—super casual—rather like a precocious teenager's diary. It's a highly readable novel, but remains to the end no more than a slight amusement, for the author has no perspective about the things that happen. She simply spills it all out. Nor does the book dramatize any real development. In the end Isadora Wing, the heroine, has outgrown her longing for the "zipless f---" which, I suppose, is progess of a sort. But hardly worth a book.

Patricia S. Coyne, "Woman's Lit," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), May 24, 1974, p. 604.

Passionately indiscreet amd indiscriminate, [Fear of Flying] is hardly a novel at all, but a series of furious escapades, loosely tacked together as parts of Isadora Wing's unfinished quest for something called "the zipless fuck."… Its particular kind of liberated bawdy, its greed for experience and stentorian humour belong to a tradition of the novel for which the cultivated social ironies of 19th-century fiction have never really existed. It works on the premise that since literature is notably short of picaresque heroines—where are the female Tom Jones?—their invention requires the writer to start from scratch. Fear of Flying brings the history of the Women's Novel up to about 1720….

In England, Mrs. Jong has managed to enrage several of her male reviewers: Martin Amis in the Observer and Paul Theroux in the New Statesman ("this crappy novel …") were both driven to apoplexy by Fear of Flying. They were clearly galled by the prospect of this woman who, because she is a woman, seems to feel entitled to take the net down before starting the tennis game. No man could get away with quite that calculated artlessness, or blowsy innocence, so why should she? But get away with it she does. Her appalling heroine (reading the book is like being locked in a lift with a woman who tells you her life story twice over, rapes you, and stops you reaching for the Emergency button) has a crude genius for reality, its quantity rather than quality. She persuades one of her existence by brute force, and she will not be budged.

What is more, if she is a monster, she is botheringly close to the insatiably willing dream-girl of male fantasies and male fiction.

Jonathan Raban, in Encounter, July, 1974, p. 76.