Judith Rossner Essay - Rossner, Judith (Vol. 9)

Rossner, Judith (Vol. 9)

Rossner, Judith 1935–

An American novelist, Rossner has been stylistically compared to Joyce Carol Oates. She is best known for her successful novel, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

To The Precipice … remains Ms. Rossner's most ambitious novel. It is a Bildungsroman, a psychological novel, a Jewish novel, a woman's novel, a luminous period piece, and a family chronicle with a large, complex canvas that displays many of the author's principal themes and preoccupations. Ruth Kossoff, the gritty, sarcastic heroine-narrator of the book, is shrewd, attractive, thoroughly problematic….

Ruth's journey, psychological as well as material, from the Lower East Side to … Fifth Avenue and 96th Street, provides To The Precipice with an ethnic axis that affords humor. (p. 661)

In a sense Ruth has successfully coped…. She has accomplished this through a series of jolting confrontations, which scarcely conceal a radical, if not militant, feminism, embodiment of the contemporary rootlessness and restlessness of the "new" woman….

Any Minute I Can Split … depicts Margaret McDonough Adams, a heroine in the painful process of liberating herself from a father, who has rejected her, and a husband, who has abused her. The novel, told from Margaret's point of view, deals seriously enough with the problems created by parents, marriage, childbearing, sexuality and suicide. However, it has a much lighter touch than To The Precipice, which was slow-paced and somberly naturalistic in many long passages of description that were almost Dreiserian. The action of Any Minute I Can Split, on the other hand, is essentially conveyed through sharp, epigrammatic dialogue—indeed, some of the best moments in the book are elaborate wisecracks—and the major setting is a commune in Vermont that supplies an airiness and spaciousness which the Manhattan of To The Precipice could not. (p. 662)

Important questions are asked and discussed: What cements the standard suburban family, and what makes it split? Is the communal family an alternative? Is sex a more reliable binder in the presumably free conditions of a commune than it is in the nuclear family? To what extent is Women's Liberation legitimate? Is the concept of life style, esteemed by the communards, any more meaningful than the concept of taste, revered by wealthy suburbanites? Finally, does money—always an important element in a Rossner novel—influence the people who form communes more than the ideals that led them to such experimentation? (p. 663)

Nine Months in the Life of an Old Maid … is a subtle psychological study of a family in conflict, where the hostilities are great and yet where mutual affection, however neurotic, still holds. The novel, sensitively describing parental egoism and the alienation of children, attempts to find a delicate balance—grounds for conciliation and reconciliation—among very dissimilar, often disagreeable, people….

This novel of human relationships is a triumph of style. Like Any Minute I Can Split, plot and character are essentially conveyed through dialogue. And, one feels that, without much effort, because the dialogue is lively and witty, the book could be turned into a successful play. Themes dealing with marriage, the family, the role of women and the tensions between generations are as evident as they are expected. Still, Ms. Rossner has broken new ground with this novel as she has done with each of her other works. After the phenomenon of Mr. Goodbar, she appears to be only in the middle of her stride. She is a writer to be watched with expectation. (p. 664)

Edward M. Potoker, "Judith Rossner: Daughters and Lovers," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 29, 1976. pp. 661-64.

In her earlier novel, "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," Judith Rossner anatomized the rootlessness of males and females shuffling in and out of their little urban hutches, like rabbits on the run. The writing seemed dull to me…. But "Attachments" is an extraordinary leap from the mundane, "realistic" settings and sexual tableaux of that previous novel. Ostensibly it is a story about Siamese twins, but it is loneliness, a horrible, scratchy loneliness, that is the real focus. It is a lovely, bitter, frightening book.

A kind of demon has caught Judith Rossner. God knows, she must have torn bits of herself into the book. It's the thing I most admire: the writer moving closer and closer to that edge where metaphors aren't simply games of play, where language begins to hurt.

Nadine Tumulty, the heroine of the book, is a Los Angeles child, born "in the land where there was never any winter outside of the soul." Nadine is a lonely girl. "Some people spend their lives falling and never notice. I not only noticed but screamed the whole time." She's bitten with a hunger to attach herself to something more permanent than her own skin. "Dreams of falling through infinite amounts of space had been replaced by dreams of being permanently attached to someone else so I could never fall."

She senses her own curious dilemma. "I needed a man powerful enough to stop me from killing him but crazy enough to want to take care of me the rest of the time!" Nadine is prowling for love.

She grasps at it in the form of Eddie and Amos Smith, a pair of Siamese twins who are living in Beverly Hills. She spies on them swimming in their pool, "moving, moving, never needing to speak, each understanding without words where the other is going." She tells her best friend Dianne about the twins. Dianne "thought they were freakish but I thought they were beautiful and I was freakish…. They'd been born to a condition I was spending my life trying to achieve."…

Soon the twins pair off in a permanent way. Dianne becomes pregnant, and Eddie marries her. Amos marries Nadine….

At first Nadine and Dianne are obsessed with the wonders of Amos and Eddie. The twins are complete in themselves: "nothing's important to them except each other; they hardly know the rest of the world exists." But this specific quality of the twins, their own private circuit, begins to gnaw at the two wives. The joint that holds the twins together, their "attachment," a bridge of flesh at the abdomen, has already poisoned Nadine. (p. 9)

For Nadine the twins become "that monster one-half of which I called my husband." She induces Amos and Eddie to have an operation that will sever their joint, halve them, split them in two. The twins agree. Without their joint, the bad dreams. "I'm out in space and it's dark and I'm cold and I'm dying." They turn ordinary. And their wives abandon them. "You only loved us when we were freaks," Amos says at the end of the novel.

Will it be only the male reader who cries for Amos and Eddie? I wonder. Judith Rossner has provided us with a myth that destroys all the beatitudes of female sexuality. "Attachments" is a kind of "Lolita" in reverse: the female's terrifying quest for identity through sexual power and lust. We purr at the exotic. We fondle it, we move up close to it, smother it, until it becomes more and more like ourselves. Then we seek other eyes, other faces, other twins. Funny, sexy and sad, "Attachments" is a crazy treatise on "love" as the ultimate executioner. Judith Rossner has written about the bitch in all of us. "Attachments" is without mercy, marvelous and tough. (p. 34)

Jerome Charyn, "On the Prowl for Love," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 18, 1977, pp. 9, 34.

On pages 97 and 98 of Attachments we learn in one three-minute sweep of the eye all the "news" (for that is what novel means) that Rossner has to impart to us. On those two pages we are given in graphic detail the answer to the major question raised by the novel: How does a woman, the heroine, Nadine, "do it" with her Siamese-twin husband? And when her best friend, Dianne, marries the other twin, how do they do it? Once these momentous questions of logistics are solved, there remain a few others that ought to create curiosity, but somehow—because of the endless, flat terrain of language we have to travel across—they do not. (pp. 30-1)

Put aside the essential poverty of the sensational idea and the attenuated workings-out of the occasional complications. What remains is the absence of … rich, inventive language. Rossner uses words carelessly; she is deaf to the natural music of good sentences because she is so preoccupied with the ramifications of her catchy idea. (p. 31)

Doris Grumbach, in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), October 1, 1977.

As we all are, Judith Rossner is curious about what makes people stick together. Never one to shirk extremes, she has come up with a cheerfully unwholesome extravaganza about conjoined twins…. In Looking for Mr Goodbar (1975) she gave a commanding account of the progress of an addict of dependence, a woman scarred by her devotion to the memory of childhood illness, who consigns herself to the role of easy lay, and is at last ambiguously slaughtered by a bar-room pick-up, because both autonomy and mutual dependence are impossible for her: she is safer when attached to couples. These preoccupations, in the earlier novel handled with confidence and wit, reach a distasteful but logical culmination in Attachments, where the heroine, Nadine, after completing her Master's in male inadequacy with three overly detached specimens, becomes enraptured by a self-sufficient couple, anatomically joined thorax to thorax…. The twins are used to sharing more than a band of tissue and a lobe of liver: briefly she is the apex of an athletically carnal triangle, but with insane persistence induces her friend Dianne, Eastern liberal Jewish intellectual Dianne, with a life "full of Civil and other liberties", to become the square on the hypotenuse….

Judith Rossner has a sharp line in sustained ironic confabulation, as in Nadine's account of her mother's reaction to her departure for college:

A couple of months before I left she got a Pekingese to replace me but then she couldn't stand the way it yipped. She replaced the Pekingese with a cat but then it turned out she was allergic to cat dandruff. They got rid of the cat and my father erected a beautiful aquarium in front of the living room window but within two weeks every fish in it was dead. She went to a doctor and got tranquillizers.

But she is rarely so economic in phrase or construction in this dense underbrush of a novel, where characters intertwine like lianas, and tendrils of subplot bar every path. Nadine is examined in every light and mood and is a most intricate piece of clockwork, but appears to be powered by a rather crude piece of Freudian psychomechanism, with a simple drive and many redundant gears. Descriptions of herself are often indulgent…. There is too much heavy underlining….

Unattractively selfconscious as the writing is at times, this is a consequence of an unblinking self-awareness. The narrative line may be contorted and diffuse, but it is the path of an ambitious expedition, which has brought back too many trophies. Intermittently absorbing, always intelligent, the novel's immodest and unachievable aim is to describe "an act that would make real life seem reasonable by comparison".

Eric Korn, "The Twin Syndrome," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 4, 1977, p. 1285.

Judith Rossner wins this year's award for the biggest confidence trick: she takes us into her confidence, and then she tricks us. Attachments wheedles the reader; it is coy and slightly hysterical, like a cross between Penthouse and Woman's Own, desperate for our attention and even our complicity as the narrator, Nadine, settles down to tell the story of her life. And it's not as if we could lie back, close our eyes, and drift into a sound sleep: Attachments keeps on nudging us awake with arch announcements, sly asides and occasionally with great shrieks. The reader is addressed as 'you', and it soon becomes clear that his position is one of analyst to Judith Rossner's patient. This idea of the novel as therapy session is a relatively recent one, and not all of us will find the new role particularly appealing. It means that the narrator tries to get annoyingly close; with the irritating assumption in this book that Nadine's empty past, and her tenuous anxieties, are of some extraordinary significance which only a fool would find uninteresting. In a good writer this might be entertaining, since to treat the novel as one long session of analysis is to presume that the boundaries of 'the real' are no longer fixed or definite. But here is doesn't work. When a false relationship is established between writer and reader, nothing can work. (p. 24)

Judith Rossner avoids some of the more boringly familiar scenes by altering the story slightly: the sexual possibilites of Siamese twins, and their resolution, are at least a prurient twist of the old plot. But in American novels, new forms of sex simply mean new kinds of 'hang-up', and Attachments gets monotonously stuffed with Nadine's relentless self-analysis. It is literally monotonous since that confessional, letting-it-all-hang-out tone doesn't allow any interesting variations in its frantic search for self-expression. The more interesting Nadine finds her predicament, as a dissatisfied housewife caring for a couple of freaks, the flatter the novel becomes. And the more cosy and conversational she gets, the more irritating it feels. Dramatic events are capitalised—Getting With Child; mental pain is touchingly expressed as AARGH!; exclamation marks, some of them even in brackets (!), are continually being used. And then, AARGH!, we get emotive lists as though Nadine were reeling off a number of sexual episodes in an encounter session: 'Things We Did Not Discuss Before We Got Married.'

But the false, cloying complicity of the novel's tone lays the blame on us…. It is as if we were making Judith Rossner continue against her will; as though we hadn't had enough already, and wanted a little more pain in the next chapter. That, somehow, it's all our fault. And in a sense she's right. We all insist that our common language—the language we use in speech and the language which the novel adopts—can actually create a coherent and interesting world; and so we assume that the two-dimensional pictures which fiction provides bear some relation to the world we live through. But they don't; they are a misrepresentation; novels are lies, and when they try to deny their status, they become hysterically self-justifying or rhetorically grandiose.

In Attachments this means that the narrator herself becomes a walking cliché the more real she tries to become…. In this world of lemon meringue, no human contact is possible. Despite the persistent presence of the Siamese twins, they never emerge as anything other than a bizarre adjunct to the processes of Nadine's emotional life. There are so many emotional 'events' that the book is devoid of feeling. It was clearly Judith Rossner's intention to lift an otherwise stereotyped story by giving her male characters a new look, but it hasn't worked. She has forgotten that nobody's feelings are important unless they are cleverly expressed. (pp. 24-5)

Peter Ackroyd, "Glandular," in The Spectator (© 1977 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 12, 1977, pp. 24-5.