Read in June, 2010
Let me confess right up front that I'm an Erica Jong fan. I was titillated and shocked by Fear of Flying in the 80s, then read How to Save Your Own Life at the start of the 90s and it became, and still is, one of my favourite novels. Yes, Erica/Isidora/Leila seems obsessed by sex - but then who isn't? Because, you see, our libidinous heroine is not just after mindless coupling. She's not simply promiscuous. She doesn't use sex as a tool to manipulate men or situations. What she's after is what we all crave, although some of us don't have the wherewithal - or the guts - to take the quest as far as she does. What she craves is connection, the 'zipless fuck', the skinless encounter that takes us out of ourselves and that we approach only when the coupling is at its most vital, most intense, most passionate and probably most obsessive.
Jong has inspired me for years with her heroines and their lack of sexual inhibition, and with her honest and fearless writing. She goes where most of us writers - and readers - fear to tread, into the physical and psychological messiness, the self-sabotage, the contradictions, strengths and weaknesses of a woman trying to live as authentically as she can, in a society and time where female roles have changed dramatically on a superficial level, but much less so at the heart of things. Becoming a rich, famous author doesn't make the real deal any easier; if anything, it facilitates delusion, avoidance and self-destructive behaviour, but even at her worst there's an endearing self-awareness and deprecation that redeems Jong/Isidora/Leila.
It doesn't hurt that Jong can write; she puts you there, right into the story, even when you want to stand aside and judge: you're a woman, and you recognise, nay, you own the neuroses. Plus, I love the way she sends me off to research all those classical/literary/cultural references that have become hazy over the years. Another reviewer (on Goodreads) hated this. I don't. It adds to the richness of the experience for me.
So why the three star review? Why not four or five stars? Because I enjoyed How To Save Your Own Life more. Because so many of the themes are repetitive, which should not work against her because that's the way life is, but this is literature, and it does. Because I'm somewhat impatient with the heroine's substance abuse. I'm beginning to understand why people do it, why they are driven to seek escape from themselves by any means necessary. All the same, I can't help but be judgmental about this aspect of Jong's character(s). Life is hard, and it f***ing hurts, but medicating/drinking/drugging one's way through it gets no respect from me. Also, although I'm partial to New-Agey gobbledegook, sometimes it can seem like so much, well, gobbledegook. It's not Jong's fault; if I'd read the book when it was written I might have been more patient with this aspect of it. But two decades have passed since, and I've grown up a bit, and grown more discriminating. The 'California way' has palled somewhat.
For better or worse, Jong's stories have inspired me - as a woman, a feminist, and a writer, as someone who tries to live (and write) authentically, and who finds the whole realm of erotic attachment and exploration nothing short of riveting. That's quite an achievement for Jong. Now I'm off to read her Fear of Fifty.