Fredrica Wagman Critical Essays

Wagman, Fredrica

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wagman, Fredrica 1940–

Ms Wagman is an American novelist.

It will be a hard day for the novel if chemotherapy ever displaces psychoanalysis. What meaningful relationship can you have with a healer who monitors your reaction to lithium? Nothing nearly as fabulous as the thing Fredrica Wagman's heroine [of Magic Man, Magic Man] has going with the "magic man," an analyst who floats in and out of her reveries, fantasies and bedroom. If analysis turns into symbiosis, all the better for fiction.

The analysand is a sensuous plaintiff against life who records her sights, smells and needs in pungent detail. She is an olfactory freak ("Sometimes I could hallucinate inside my nose") and a compulsive eater, who can transmogrify love into a digestive metaphor. ("I would have very much liked to eat Elliott up, ingest him, devour him, swish him around inside my mouth, gulping his fluids and munching on his bones, spitting out his teeth so I would never have to lose him.") When her first husband proves indigestible, she divorces him and marries a furry and prosperous character called "The Bear," whom she finds tasteless and odorless. She falls prey to in-between meals and depression. Soon it's time for the magic man.

What is very good about the novel is its bouquet of sensory experience. What is disappointing is that the author doesn't see far enough beyond her nose. (pp. 10, 12)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 2, 1975.

[Wagman's] second novel, Magic Man, Magic Man,… is about a girl whose experience of growing into adulthood is shaped by hunger—many kinds of hunger. Wagman uses surreal (and often hysterically funny) metaphors to describe real fears. The story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, who speaks in a language that is so strangely evocative it is impossible to separate what is literal from what is figurative. When the heroine, at 27, is feeling fat and worthless, she says, "I saw myself as green … walking on my knees … became my statement. And it seemed to me that people liked me better that way." At another time, she "becomes" a rabbit, pink nose twitching on the ground looking for a radish, because others have insisted it is a radish that she craves. (pp. 94-5)

The heroine's conflicts read like another "woman struggling to find herself" story, and there is nothing unique or funny about that. What is funny, hysterically funny, is the recognition of ourselves in Wagman's grotesque—and devastatingly accurate—picture of that search. Wagman's images of women as foraging creatures startle, but do not, somehow, surprise. When Wagman's heroine becomes a furry rabbit twitching for food, the vision is presented with compassion, not derision; the recognition is exhilarating, not embarrassing.

Fredrica Wagman has taken what is absurd (and true) about women's lives, crafted it clearly in our own fantastic images and our own humor, and served it up to us as a very funny feast. That is magic, indeed. Bon appétit. (pp. 95-6)

Susan K. Berman, "You Are What You Eat & Eat & Eat & Eat," in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), May, 1975, pp. 94-6.

Wagman's nameless heroine [of Playing House] madly yearns to recapture her past, but not so she can dwell once more in the pure, untainted world of a Phoebe Caulfield, Holden's saintly kid sister in The Catcher in the Rye. Rather, some twenty years after Salinger's famous novel depicting adolescence as the fall from prepubescent grace, it is the lost corruption of childhood that is elegized and the passing of a little girl's erotic frenzy that is wretchedly mourned. (p. 211)

The point of view is not Humbert Humbert's but Lolita's—only a Lolita with heart and nerves exposed, a little girl at once more ordinary and more loving, and, for that reason, more profoundly destroyed. This remarkably persuasive first novel about one who was a woman when she might better have been a girl—and as a consequence is still a little girl when she would herself prefer to be a woman—is as much of a love song to childhood incest as it is a perverse validation of that universal taboo…. (p. 212)

[Though] Wagman chooses to introduce a chapter with a quotation attributed to Bob Dylan about the "smoke rings of my mind" …, the fact is that her prose has more in common with Dylan Thomas's childhood recollections. It is there in the wide-eyed childishness of her cadences, in the breathy stringing together of the peculiar with the homely, in the characters who are named and seen as in a nursery rhyme. She can at her best be just as guileless and rhapsodic as the author of Under Milk Wood, and what's more, lacking his literary sophistication and his desire to charm, can pull it off without necessarily being endearing in the process. There is too much torment and depravity for the childishness, at age ten or thirty, to cloy. (p. 213)

The traumatized child; the institutionalized wife; the haunting desire; the ghastly business of getting through the day—what is striking about Wagman's treatment of these contemporary motifs is the voice of longing in which the heroine unashamedly confesses to the incestuous need that is at once her undoing and her only hope. It is a voice that owes nothing, finally, to either of the Dylans, or to the demonic pop lingo of the last decade—or to post-Freudian currents in literature or psychology. To readers of Stekel or Virginia Woolf or hard-core pornography, it might appear that the writer is a student, in her fashion, of all three. But in fact, the sado-masochistic scenario, the fervent streamingness of the surface, and the graphic rendering of the sexually unsavory issue in one gush from the imagination of an authentic and unself-conscious middle-class primitive. Her moral outlook is so much a matter of personality that there is really no valid argument possible between her sense of things and anyone else's. I don't imagine that even at a later stage of development as a novelist she will ever come up against the kind of opposition, from without or within, that informs the novel of dramatic struggle. The only irony Fredrica Wagman's heroine is able to know is the irony of her own enslavement; she is beyond everyone's reach, poor woman, except the one who touched her first. (pp. 213-14)

Philip Roth, in his Reading Myself and Others (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1961, 1963, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by Philip Roth), Farrar, Straus, 1975.