How to Save Your Own Life
In Fear of Flying Erica Jong created a female protagonist who tried to rid herself of the trappings of home, husband, and security when she ran off on a journey through Europe with Adrian Goodlove, a British, nonchalant, often physically impotent psychiatrist. Although Adrian and Bennett Wing, Isadora’s husband, shared the same profession, Adrian was more exotic than her Chinese spouse because he was so unpredictable. After Adrian left her in Paris, however, Isadora returned to Bennett’s hotel room to take a bath. How to Save Your Own Life begins three years after the events of this first novel. It is obvious that Isadora needed more than a physical cleansing, and, unfortunately, the prose and ideas offered in Erica Jong’s new novel are tepid, like bathwater that has been sitting for too long.
As A Chorus Line is a Broadway musical about the problems that dancers face when trying out for such a production, so How to Save Your Own Life is a novel about the personal and professional difficulties that a famous novelist encounters when she achieves fame. In the middle of this novel she announces to her readers that her next book will be entitled How to Save Your Own Life; this is the book we are reading. Who has created these pages—Isadora Wing, Erica Jong, or the fictitious Candida Wong of the equally fictitious Candida Confesses that is related somehow to Isadora Wing of Fear of Flying? The identification crisis that Isadora Wing grapples with in the text when she tries to disassociate herself from Candida Wong presents serious difficulties for the reader who tries to discern who is the “amanuensis to the Zeitgeist?” Perhaps, Ms. Wong-Wing-Jong has revived the mixture of autobiography and fiction that was so popular during the 1920’s in American literature. After all, F. Scott Fitzgerald purportedly lifted passages from Zelda’s diary as well as excerpts from their lives when writing his short stories and novels; certainly, the same literary license should be available to a female writer of the 1970’s. Besides, now someone might write a sympathetic biography of Mr. Jong’s life.
In the novel, the problem of merging autobiography and fiction is one with which Isadora and Bennett must deal, but which they never really resolve. From a female writer’s point of view, Bennett is exposed as a husband who can come to terms with his wife’s spiritual and sexual undressing, but forbids her and threatens to leave her if she uses his past experiences in her new novel. Isadora resents and refuses to tolerate this attitude. She writes, “It is one thing to demythicize women, to expose one’s self—but it is quite another to demythicize men, to expose one’s husband. A man’s hypocrisy is his castle.” It is this hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of others that greatly disturb Isadora. Bennett is constantly being praised for putting up with a wife who has written a book that confirms that not only do heroines actually have sexual fantasies, but that they also confess them. The thought that he is now telling her what to write and what not to write about infuriates her artistic sensibilities. She is tired of the patient, humorless husband role that Bennett has chosen to play, and she desires to become the wife who threatens to embarrass him professionally.
Although Candida confessed openly, Bennett has waited several years to reveal his longterm love affair with Penny Prather. Isadora is personally hurt when she discovers that he could feel passion for another woman; however, when she realizes that Penny and Bennett had been using her study—where she wrote her first poems and stories—for their assignations, she is professionally outraged. Her anger is intensified by the realization that they had been reading her unpublished manuscripts after coitus. Such castles of hypocrisy must be torn down with waves of prose. And so she writes, and often writes well, even though Bennett warns her at the end of the novel as she leaves him that she can never do so again without him.
Personal and professional hostilities mesh and embitter Isadora, too, as she remembers Bennett insisted that she use his name at the end of her poems and on the cover of her novel. Isadora, before overcoming her fear of flying, was troubled by what name to use. At first, she signed her poems with her maiden name, “Isadora White,” but Bennett was disturbed and disappointed and characteristically reacted as a Freudian psychiatrist would—such a choice obviously pointed to a preference of...
(The entire section is 1868 words.)