Erica Jong Jong, Erica (Vol. 8) - Essay

Jong, Erica (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jong, Erica 1942–

An American novelist and poet, Jong belongs to the "confessional/personalist" school. She is best known for her controversial works of sexual frankness, Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life. (See also CLC, Vols. 4,6.)

To those who found her first in the poem collections Fruits & Vegetables and Half-Lives, Erica Jong was a fresh presence, a poet with a flair for creating striking imagery and evoking gut responses. What with the subsequent publication of her first novel Fear of Flying, however, that earlier impression seemed threatened by a newer, coarser one—that of a badmouthed blonde appearing on national TV, frequently being bleeped and carefully cultivating book sales, and an image. In the new collection, Loveroot (the word is Whitman's), Jong carries the quest for sexual frankness and poetic license even further; if Sexton is Plath diluted, then Jong is diluted Sexton—diluted, I mean, in terms of control—but a Sexton determined to survive. Her poems are printed shouts, chants; they are oral, and encourage recital. They are genuinely Whitman-influenced, yet bear within them the dangers inherent even in Whitman's own work, that of descending to an open, formless rant, the work of readings' darlings. (pp. 99-100)

Loveroot is adorned, perhaps burdened, with an excess of quoted texts; often enough, they are excerpts from authors to whom Jong writes poems (Whitman, Keats, Colette), as well as others whose presence moves in subtler ways through these pages. In other sections ("In the Penile Colony," "Hungering") Jong is more clearly personal, less "easy" in the achievement of effects dependent upon construction of abstract mosaics of the works of the subject him/herself. (p. 100)

[Is Jong's poetry narcissistic?] Of course, but refreshingly healthy in the context of the "school" to which Jong nominally belongs, the confessional/personalist group of Lowell and Snodgrass, but especially Plath and Sexton and Berryman. We all know what the last three have in common, and forgive Jong the chutzpah that staves off a like fate….

Jong is more than a feminist, she is a woman, and her personality translates into poetry as naked as any written. She knows that

                    Terror writes poetry,
                    hope, prose.

and though the presentation of her terrors has thus far to be taken on her own recognizance, their effects are universal enough, and intermittently poetry of a high order. (p. 101)

John Ditsky, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1975 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1975–76.

Erica Jong writes not so much novels as almost breathlessly up-to-date confessional bulletins. When last seen in Fear of Flying, Jong (who calls herself Isadora Wing on paper) was soaping up in her psychiatrist-husband's bathtub, waiting rather ambiguously for him to return and forgive her for the 340-page sexual excursion that made up the novel.

It didn't work out. At the start of How to Save Your Own Life, Erica/Isadora is slipping out of the Wing/Jong Upper West Side co-op apartment for the last time, leaving the doctor to his patients and, as Isadora says, "his hatred of women."… In Jong's wall-poster philosophy, today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Fear of Flying possessed a bawdy exuberance. John Up-dike even found it Chaucerian [see CLC, Vol. 4]. But How to Save Your Own Life is marinated in sour juices: dissolving marriage, curdled fame, Hollywood's treachery. "Ain't it awful?" the reader mutters. Erica/Isadora uses the book to settle old scores against her husband ("I married a monster, I think") and a hustling Hollywood producer who, she says, flimflammed her on the film right to the bestselling first novel. Before she gets around to making the final break with Dr. Wing, Isadora has a lesbian affair, checks in with a brace of former lovers (male), flies West to work on her film, and there finds the vacant, curiously dippy Josh, a 27-year-old aspiring screenwriter who is to be the love of her life. For now, anyway. Isadora composes lines to him that read like hard-core Kahlil Gibran: "My soul is mine; / My mouth belongs to you."

How to Save Your Own Life is written in six or seven different styles, ranging from academic hauteur (she says she was "amanuensis to the Zeitgeist") through Cosmo cute ("Bed reared its ugly headboard") to bewildering lifeless porn. The author's mind seems to have been softened by too many hours in a Malibu Jacuzzi. As if searching for a new definition of vulgarity, Jong writes that hostile criticism of her first novel makes her think of "Jews gassed at Auschwitz." (Actually, Fear of Flying was extravagantly overpraised.) She also contrives to turn the tragic suicide of Poet Anne Sexton (named "Jeannie" in the book) into a kind of posthumous blurb for herself.

The woman is enough to make readers think that sex really is dirty. She describes remarkably unpleasant oral activities with her female lover; if a man had written that, feminists would have beaten him unconscious with a copy of The Hite Report. (pp. 74-5)

Lance Morrow, "Oral History," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1977), March 14, 1977, pp. 74-5.

There is one hilarious scene in "How to Save Your Own Life," when Isadora Wing takes a fling at lesbianism. There is also a nice orgy…. And, of the 18 erotic poems batched at the back of the book, several are quite good, especially "We Learned."

That, perhaps, is the news about Erica Jong's second, surprisingly tiresome novel, unless we want to sit around in the Jacuzzi dilating on what constitutes fiction, or autobiography, or "myth." Like "Fear of Flying," "How to Save Your Own Life" advertises itself as a novel, with Isadora Wing as heroine. But in interview after interview, ever since she burst upon us as a sort of Mary Poppins of female sexuality in 1973, Erica Jong has insisted that "myth" is what she's really after….

[It] is hard to believe that the author of "Fear of Flying" wrote "How to Save Your Own Life." Whereas the author of "Fear of Flying" was looking inside her own head, shuffling her fantasies, and with a manic gusto playing out her hand, the author of "How to Save Your Own Life" is looking over her shoulder, afraid that the critics might be gaining on her. Instead of neat one-liners, she specializes in pious philosophizing. Not insincere, but pious, hectoring, self-important.

The prose in "How to Save Your Own Life" bogs into cliché alarmingly….

Along with this laziness there are slapdash summaries, not embodiments, of her characters. They amount to little more than lists of ingredients, recipes for people. Besides, if we spent much time with the other characters, we might miss Isadora's next exhortation. Jong insists when she should persuade…. She has … thumped us on the head with the "really subversive" affirmation that "Love is everything it's cracked up to be." One hopes so. And one hopes she's happy in Malibu. And one hopes she makes a lot of money, because writers ought to have some.

But what happened to the energy and irreverence of "Fear of Flying," the Huck Finnishness, the cheerful vulgarity, the eye for social detail? Whence this solemnity and carelessness—not in the poems, because "Loveroot" (1975) is an advance from "Fruits & Vegetables" (1971) and "Half-Lives" (1973)—that make "How to Save Your Own Life" so sententious? Why, in her book, must we do most of the imaginative work?…

As she told "Mademoiselle" last June, "I'm one of the most interviewed people in the world." Being interviewed demands very little from a celebrity—much less a myth—but time and canned opinions. It is as if, in "How to Save Your Own Life," Erica Jong had interviewed herself, when she should have been, sentence by sentence, writing a book. Sincerity is no excuse for sloppy craft. (p. 2)

Leonard Michaels, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 20, 1977.

There is no point in talking about How to Save Your Own Life as a serious didactic work, despite the title, or as art, or as entertainment….

There are in fact some good or at least interesting things about the book. In some respects it is an improvement on life…. Jong's book, which resembles in every way the ramblings of the deserted friend who has taken to the tape recorder and submitted the unedited transcript, has the virtue that we can abandon it without hurting her feelings or damaging our own self-regard….

[How to Save Your Own Life is] a plain, wholesome American story, containing … that peculiarly American and purely literary substance Fulfillment, modern equivalent of fairy gold, so gleaming and tangible you can even put it in your pocket and carry it from coast to coast. The novelist is adroit in combining all the clichés of two types of regional novel which had formerly seemed distinct, the Manhattan and the Hollywood, in such a way as to reveal that Hollywood is simply a cultural mutation of New York. She says, with characteristic delicacy, "California is a wet dream in the mind of New York," which perhaps we ought to have seen all along, though from the Western point of view certain differences seem to persist, which are not discoverable if you get no farther than the Polo Lounge. East or West, the nature of her prescription for saving your own life is finally unclear: divorce? lesbian encounters? love? best-sellerdom? So it is hard to say of what use the unfulfilled will find it. (p. 6)

Diane Johnson, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 NYREV, Inc.), April 28, 1977.

I'm treed; it irks me no end. I have to—have to—ravage Erica Jong's new book. Irksome, because this is just what Erica wanted all along: the barracuda treatment. I mean, a man and a Gentile blitzing her: oh, pogromsville and joy. Despite the hitter-chick sex, Fear of Flying was cute as baton-twirlers: likable, humorous, adroit. Erica expected suffering and outrage and at least one honorary FBI tap; instead she got whacking great success. Life is cruel. She'll relish this flop the way Al Goldstein secretly relishes going to Leavenworth for public lewdness. Discipline is love; American society has been too permissive. Erica, I love you: How to Save Your Own Life is Christ-awful. An aphid could have written it.

What we get here is Erica Jong writing a "novel" about Isadora Wing, who has written a "novel" about Candida Wong, who is really her: let that pronoun refer back where it will….

In Fear of Flying Isadora had charm: probably the first female Malamud character, a Jewish clown. But Isadora II takes herself so seriously: fem-lib emblem now, not shnook….

Enthusiasm, not crankiness, is the most accurate gauge of talent. Even C+ writers can engross while being bitchy or snide. And Isadora II enthuses often: on love, on most-unforgettable author friends, on the fearsome responsibility one has to upper-case Art. Her enthusiastic writing is sump gush: a smell of sulphur dioxide in it. You want to look away…. Erica writes, Lord, just like a woman. And that's my very best pejorative. (p. 498)

Worse yet, she has cheapened the art of fiction. FoF was attractive, yes, but it sold in pallet-loads because it was expressly autobiographical. Erica turned herself into a sideshow geek. Look, there's the woman who has to masturbate three times per day. Look, fiction (unless it can be read for People magazine gossip) has no contemporary relevance. Her success did just a little bit more to invalidate the novelist-imaginator. Erica Jong has clout: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston would've published anything she wrote. Even a real novel with, excuse the oxymoron, real imaginary characters. Literature is risk. Erica didn't accept the risk: unsurprisingly, she had no balls. Isadora may have fled her husband for a younger man, but, as far as literature is concerned, Erica Jong still fears flying. (pp. 498-99)

D. Keith Mano, "The Authoress as Aphid," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1977; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), April 29, 1977, pp. 498-99.

Romance is back! Erica Jong's publishers clearly understand. They describe How to Save Your Own Life as a "remarkably romantic love story", and Isadora herself boasts of being a "romantic". What they mean is that within the world of this novel, and the literary tradition to which it belongs, sexual love is the only thing, ultimately, that matters. It is this that women desire above all else: it is this that gives meaning and justification to their lives….

The sexual freedom that Isadora enjoys seems neither liberating nor degrading. It is largely irrelevant: "I suddenly realize that I could fuck a different man every weekday afternoon and still not feel contented. Adultery is no solution, only a diversion." Many diversions, in fact, and all leading to true love….

How to Save Your Own Life is not, however, merely confessional: it is a novel with a message, and this also is something it shares with the great tradition of romantic fiction. It would be hard to imagine admirers of Henry James, or Conrad, or Harold Pinter, writing to them for advice on how to live, but Rhoda, and Elinor, and Edith were expected to guide and govern the lives of their more daring or lonely readers, and so is Isadora. The success of Candida Confesses makes Isadora realize that for all her own feelings of guilt and inadequacy, the heroine of her novel has become a model, an inspiration, for countless women…. When a close friend and fellow poet commits suicide, leaving behind her a blank notebook and the suggested title "How To Save Your Own Life", Isadora is determined to conquer her fear of flying.

The message is: be happy, be joyful, reject cynicism, seek for true love—"Fly and live to tell the tale!" The moment when Isadora decides on this is a turning point of How to Save Your Own Life; it is the main theme of the love poems addressed to Josh which are appended to the novel, and it recurs in the new volume of Erica Jong's poems Loveroot….

It is not being cynical to say that Isadora's experiences as a "wise-ass Jewish girl" would not be so possible if she were not sexually attractive, famous and rich. She is, of course, a poet as well, but the poetry is as confessional as the best-selling novel….

Here, and in Loveroot, every activity takes second place to sexual love:

          The sky is clearer when I'm not in heat,
          & the poems
          are colder.

The advice is, cast off cynicism and experience joy, but too often this comes over as find your man and all will be well. It is not simply a matter of the words being colder when the writer is "not in heat". Quite the contrary really, for humour tends to disappear when romantic love is taken too seriously. Erica Jong trying to convey unhappiness is no more believable than Isadora in her moods of sadness: "I'm forever trying to convince my friends and family that I bleed when stabbed—but no one believes me because I look so jaunty."

And how could she expect anything else? Isadora irreverent, cynical, outrageous, or jaunty, is delightful. She is at her most convincing when she portrays the ridiculous or bizarre; when she is classifying the lavatories of Europe, or trying to convey an adolescent girl's bewilderment at the "hiddenness" of her body, or, in one of the funniest episodes in How To Save Your Own Life, as she strives desperately, and inexpertly, to bring off her lesbian friend….

Erica Jong's [sense of the ridiculous is highly developed], and it would be sad if she goes on allowing it to be suppressed.

Peter Keating, "Erica, or Little by Little," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 6, 1977, p. 545.