Judith Rossner Rossner, Judith (Vol. 6) - Essay

Rossner, Judith (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rossner, Judith 1935–

Ms Rossner, an American, has written several novels, including the very successful Looking for Mr. Goodbar. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

"How do you get attached to people?" asks David, a withdrawn 19-year-old, who has picked up (or been picked up by) [the heroine of "Any Minute I Can Split"], a pregnant, 250-pound runaway matron named Margaret Adams. And that indeed is the question Miss Rossner explores in a sunburst of human relationships. The pseudo-maternal attachment that links Margaret and David, when they finally come to roost in a Vermont commune. The ambivalent father-daughter thing that Margaret has for DeWitt, the compassionate impostor who is the commune's guru and who delivers her skillfully of twins. The attachment Margaret has to her nutty husband Roger, a sometime creator of "intestinal collages" and bad scenes, and to her father, a benighted Boston traffic cop. And the ties that bind the dozen or so fugitives who make up DeWitt's "extended family."

Miss Rossner has a sharp eye for the contradictions and paradoxes of her characters. The communards are torn between their hatred for money and their need for it, and sometimes, by their hatred (and love) of one another. Out of this comes a distillate of self-knowledge, precipitated with wit and understanding. (p. 23)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 30, 1972.

Ms. Rossner says that she wanted to deal in [Any Minute I Can Split] with "comparisons between the standard family and alternatives, from casual affairs to communes." The standard family is represented here by Margaret and her unloving, overbearing, shiftless, bed-hopping husband, and by his wealthy, mindless, heartless parents. Margaret's main casual affair is with a nineteen-year-old who feels no affection for anyone; it ends when he beats her up, rapes her, and walks off. The commune offers a spider web of crisscrossing tensions under superficial friendliness. As the novel's title suggests, every relationship is uneasy and tentative; the indication is that we are beginning to see in America the ironic triumph of situational existence. (p. 52)

Ms. Rossner shows us the results [of situational morality]: Relationships have no fixity; morality varies with the individual, his situation, and his mood; other people become mere stage props in the scene each individual stages for himself; emotional relationships are sadomasochistic; and human identity dwindles down to a self-centered bundle of memories, hangups, and desires. By the novel's end, Margaret has rejoined her nasty husband because he seems preferable to isolation and to the commune's manifold relationships; the two of them have rejected her poor father and are manipulating the husband's rich family; and they are planning a similarly distant manipulation of the commune. The possibility of a good life has shrunk to the need for money and successfully barricaded egocentricity.

Ms. Rossner is too willing to write about ideas; instead of being incited to thought, we are too often obliged to hear Margaret's expository thinking…. But she evokes the commune well, and her unpleasant scenes are especially credible. (pp. 52-3)

J. D. O'Hara, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 5, 1972.

[Looking for Mr. Goodbar] is more than a fictionalized reconstruction of a murder; it is a haunting, compelling thriller, guaranteed to make any woman terrified of the next strange man she meets. Rossner has written it in a clean, well-paced, almost reportorial style. The latent violence that flickers here and there—there is casual talk of switchblades, rape, and death—creates a nagging suspense….

What the author captures best, and what makes this book better than the usual murder story, is the way an innocent like Theresa Dunn gets caught up in the sexual revolution of the sixties, how she mistakes promiscuity for liberation. (p. 86)

Lore Dickstein, "The Deadly Pickup," in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), June, 1975, pp. 86-7.

If you didn't read Love Story or Jaws, you might not read [Looking for Mr. Goodbar]. If you didn't read either of those books, let me tell you that not reading this one will be even worse. It was difficult enough to profess indifference to cancer and to sharks. By not reading Judith Rossner's (fourth) novel,… you will put yourself in the socially impossible situation of professing indifference to: polio, resultant scoliosis (curvature of the spine); insecurity, resultant neurosis (promiscuity); seduction, resultant animosity (rape); and murder, resultant eroticism (necrophilia). Did I forget to mention homosexuality?…

If you do read Looking For Mr. Goodbar, it is best that you do it in one gulp, the way one eats the candy bar of the same name. This is not a book to be savored. There is nothing savory about it.

The murderer, Gary White, is repressed and repellant. The murdered, a school teacher named Theresa Dunn, is roughly the same. One suspects one is supposed to feel differently; the evidence that one should is entirely circumstantial….

Like Jennie, the coy heroine of Love Story, [Terry Dunn] wins sympathy through her debilities. What can you say about a crippled 27-year-old schoolmarm who gets herself murdered? That she loved children but hated herself? That she taught well but learned poorly? The lesson we glean from her history is that Terry Dunn never learned from her history. Experience, that best teacher, taught her only to repeat her worst mistakes….

Rossner's book is based on an actual murder. In January, 1973, a school teacher named Roseann Quinn met a man in a Manhattan singles bar and took him back to her apartment where he killed her. The papers gave the story big play because it was just the sort of unsavory story that people liked to read. It sold a lot of papers.

It will probably sell a lot of books. Just as all swimmers fear sharks, all urban dwelling women, especially those whose life-styles include singles bars, fear the fate of a Roseann Quinn or a Terry Dunn. The book's real irony—and the reader's real horror—lies in the chilling fact that unlike her other lovers, Gary White had not sought out Terry Dunn for her weakness. Their encounter is a random happening; like the great shark foraging through Jaws, he makes her a victim because she is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Julia Cameron, "Candy from Strangers," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 1, 1975, p. 1.

Judith Rossner has impeccable literary credentials. Her first three novels were beautifully reviewed and didn't sell. "Looking for Mr. Goodbar" is so good a read, so stunningly commercial as a novel, that it runs the risk of being consigned to artistic oblivion.

That would be a mistake. The sureness of Judith Rossner's writing and her almost flawless sense of timing create a complex and chilling portrait of a woman's descent into hell that gives this book considerable literary merit. (p. 24)

Passivity is a theme that has been dealt with much of late…. Judith Rossner gives passivity an added dimension of horror. She anatomizes its growth, step by chilling step, showing how it can be as effective a means of suicide as poison or a gun.

It is a measure of "Mr. Goodbar's" richness and complexity that it can be read on many levels. Catholics might view it as a passion play; feminists might consider Theresa a political victim of rape. Men may focus on the book's sexuality. (Men have tended to overreact to the wider use of sex in recent writing by women, but I don't think there's all that much behind this new freedom: sex is simply another area of experience for the woman novelist to mine in the same sense that the freedom to write about being Jewish say, is for Jewish writers.) What adds to my view of "Mr. Goodbar" as an exploration of passivity is the angry and frustrated reaction of a number of women who have read the book. "Mr. Goodbar" may, for them, have driven the final stake through the heart of the axiom that passive is a good way to be if you're a woman.

Another thing that has to go is the assumption that any book written by a woman about a woman who even vaguely resembles herself fits neatly into a genre labeled "women's fiction." You can bet that the current and upcoming novels by middle-aged men—Bellow, Heller, Roth, Styron—won't be labeled "male menopausal fiction."

Nor should "Mr. Goodbar" be shunted off into the genre of "commercial fiction," a convenience by which reviewers are able to measure literary merit simply as inversely proportionate to the number of people who buy a book.

If there is a genre into which "Mr. Goodbar" falls, it is a genre of uncommonly well-written and well-constructed fiction, easily accessible, but full of insight and intelligence and illumination. It is a noble genre. And, Rossner's heroine, Theresa Dunn, in this tough and powerfully controlled novel, takes her place beside Henry James's Isabel Archer and Scott Fitzgerald's Nicole Diver as another victim of the American Dream, a woman who never roused herself enough to wake up from the nightmare. (pp. 25-6)

Carol Eisen Rinzler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 8, 1975.

Mr. Goodbar richly deserves its success; it is a rare kind of book: both a compelling "page turner" and a superior roman à clef….

Rossner's fourth fine novel—and her first success—is based on [a true murder case]. It begins with the murderer's confession, so there is no suspense….

Feminists have already taken [the heroine] up as a victim in a male-oriented world….

But the woman is no Little Ms. Victim. When she was being put together, the killer instinct was not overlooked. As it turns out, she loves Dr. Engle principally because she can voice to him "the sly, hostile, outrageous things that had cropped up in her mind for years." She tells a lover of her random leching with mean gusto. One can even have some sympathy for her killer. He strikes her first because he is exhausted, and she will not let him stay the night. He gave her a good time in bed, he points out. "Okay, just okay," she says. That is a Venus flytrap talking.

Ironically, whatever the author's intentions, Mr. Goodbar will be received as part of the burgeoning canon of women's writing. Yet its cold, self-absorbed, constantly dissatisfied heroine is not unlike the "stereotypes" whom male novelists are accused of constructing. She is also a strong, vital creation—and a giant step forward in the long-term interests of sexual détente.

Martha Duffy, "The Trap," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 7, 1975, p. 60.

Large claims have been made for [Looking for Mr. Goodbar] as a statement about the exploitation (and self-exploitation) of women. The claims seem to me overstated—for one thing, the book is too much concerned with men, too little with its heroine's interior life (though I suppose you could say that's just the point). But it asks a lot of right questions, and it's an absorbing read. (p. 84)

Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1975.

[In Looking for Mr. Goodbar] Rossner is good the way Oates can be, and is more efficient too, so that without resorting to a pressurized cabin atmosphere she can locate the tangles of her heroine's Bronx family and the gradual wastedness of her obvious intelligence. The seduction by a college professor goes through the ritual motions of that embrace much better than most because Rossner knows just how much of what is happening to her the heroine can take in, how her intelligence cannot keep her from being and acting dumb. The rest … is more touristically handled, but one can complain here only that Rossner hasn't tried to do very much. The doing itself is really pretty good. (pp. 616-17)

Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.