A year ago, Morris Dickstein, writing in The New York Times, singled out a group of women writers who, under the influence of Portnoy’s Complaint, were “getting into the confessional swing,” hurdling the barriers of sex. These writers, whose number has since increased, have been credited with representing a new wave, a bold and honest feminist realism. Erica Jong has “laid down in hard cold type the full details of her heroine’s sex life and fantasies,” wrote an excited Dorothy Sieberling in “The New Sexual Frankness: Goodbye to Hearts and Flowers” (New York Magazine, February 17, 1975). Erica Jong is of course the most visible representative of this movement, being the most successful commercially and the most publicized, but a number of other women who have published novels recently—Sue Kaufman (Falling Bodies), Sandra Hochman (Walking Papers), Barbara Raskin (Loose Ends), Jill Robinson (Bed/Time/Story), et al.—can be seen as sharing many of Jong’s characteristics.
These novels describe the sexual and other adventures of urban, upper-middle class, well-educated, and well-off women, women who are just like their authors, and doubtless like many of their readers. The heroines tend to be in their thirties, attractive to men; they have been married, and some of them still are. Many hold down jobs, and all use language worthy of a ship fitter. Sophisticated, these women talk about sex with the same insistence as Dan Jenkins’s football heroes in Semi-Tough.
None of the heroines gets too far, for too long, from Manhattan or LA or Washington, where they live well above the poverty line. The books describe a kind of consumer’s raised consciousness of urban clutter. Like conscientious housewives, the heroines are obsessed with making lists: of book titles, furniture, and especially food. A great deal of cooking and eating (mostly food of an elaborate kind), along with sex, or the pursuit of it, takes place. In fact, it is hard to figure out which is more important: food or sex. “Couscous for lunch and oysters for supper” is a day’s seduction menu in Fear of Flying; while Coco Burman, the heroine of Loose Ends, tries to woo back her husband with a meal consisting of blanc de blanc, Uncle Ben’s wild rice, “self-consciously stylized salad” (excluding the boycotted iceberg), oven-hot butterfly rolls, Chicken Kiev (which her husband punctures “so that the tarragon-flavored butter blurted out over his shirt”), and chocolate mousse (made out of Instant Chocolate Jello whip).
The clutter in Fear of Flying is also, and mainly, intellectual. Isadora Wing goes in for listing the scraps of culture of her New York City childhood and Barnard education. In fact, Fear of Flying is a veritable tourist guide for her readers of what to do and think about in the city: at the Metropolitan, Isadora sees “Turner’s storms and Tiepolo’s skies…DaVinci’s Madonna of the Rocks.” She is reading Edna St. Vincent Millay at fourteen, e e cummings the next year, Yeats the next. As a child she has had ballet lessons, piano lessons, lessons at the Art Students League, and weekly tickets to the Philharmonic.
Yet this accumulation of worldly and cultural goods seems to increase these heroines’ misery. “It all began with my mother,” Isadora/Erica complains—although she goes on to describe in detail a childhood that any little princess would envy: her mother would “laugh at all my jokes as if I were Milton Berle and Groucho Marx and Irwin Corey rolled into one.” Once on her birthday, she woke up to find her “room transformed into a bower…around [her] bed are vases of daffodils, irises, anemones. On the floor are heaps of presents, wrapped in the most fanciful tissue papers and festooned with paper flowers. There are Easter eggs hand painted by my mother….” The confiding voice is that of a patient to a psychiatrist, and in fact nearly all of the heroines in these novels go to psychiatrists. Isadora Wing has been going to one or another since she was fourteen, and she is of course not only married to one psychiatrist but is carrying on an affair with another, a Laingian wearing an open Indian kurtah. The reader actually gets to sit in on Coco Burman’s sessions with Dr. Finkelstein who, like Isadora’s shrinks, is usually outsmarted by his clever patient—and by her observing readers.
If shrinks are part of the joke that’s played on these women, writers are taken with intense seriousness, if not reverence. Most of the women in these books are either writers themselves or trying to be. Of course, we are rarely told what they write or how good they are at it, but we learn a great deal about their equipment (Isadora has a red typewriter, or Jong has a pink one). Writing is treated as a means to salvation, the best thing being to be a writer like the authors of these books. Like Marjorie Morningstar’s tap routine, Isadora’s writing gives her status and mobility (how else could she get into a psychiatric conference in Vienna, where her adventure with Dr. Adrian Goodlove begins?). Jill Robinson, the name of both the author and heroine of Bed/Time/Story, is a pop journalist, like Brenda Starr, and was there to cover it when Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles; Helen Gurley Brown sends her to Esalen on assignment.
Isadora is rarely, if ever, seen at work, but she often thinks about writing, or at least what she hopes to get out of it: escape into an imaginary world, or “an attempt to get love.” Coco Burman in Loose Ends, gamely trying to write an autobiographical novel called Take Heaven by Storm, is characteristically more honest and funnier: “all Coco wanted was to make the minor literary leagues…and show how a sensitive American woman reared in and ruined by the inverted values of the 1950s could never find happiness.”
But even beneath the self-mockery here, and beneath the clever surface and Joan Rivers-Las Vegas jokes in Fear of Flying, the sense of disappointment and victimization is real enough. But disappointment in what? What are Isadora, Coco, Jill victims of? In Fear of Flying, the blame is put not so much on the world, or on the “inverted values of the 1950s,” as on men. Isadora “learned about women from men.” “The trouble with men is men; the trouble with women, men.” She complains that her idea of women has been forced on her by men. Yet the men in Fear of Flying turn out to be usable and manageable creatures, if inadequate ones. After all, the faceless Bennett Wing, having accepted his wife’s decision to go off on a tour with her lover, worries over her travelers’ checks and whether her credit card will work.
It’s hard to believe in the power of the men we actually see in Fear of Flying since they are mainly bodies, objects of Isadora’s lust. While Erica Jong has been much praised for having put a woman’s point of view, her version of sex, on the record, that point of view isn’t very different from the young pro-football hero in Semi-Tough who gets his girls to bring him “young Scotches on demand.” Part of the suspense in Fear of Flying depends on whether Dr. Goodlove is ever going to be able to perform in bed, a problem which almost wholly defines his character. Coco Burman complains that although her husband, otherwise a shadow, is a “great and artistic crotchman,” “balling guys with sizes Sm Med Lg or even XL, when you were married to it, was quite dull.” Could 007 have sized up a brassiere cup with a colder eye?
The heroines spend a lot of their mental energy admitting to lust, just as a century ago they were admitting to feeling faint. “Ahhh, her body whispered,” when Suede Bellock, her husband’s friend, comes to stay for the weekend. “When could I touch him was not enough,” confesses Jill Robinson when she has dinner with Lawrence. “Where to begin?” When Isadora goes to a café in Vienna with Dr. Adrian Goodlove, she announces to the reader that she is awash in her underpants, “wet enough to mop the streets of Vienna.”
But these bodies—Adrian Goodlove, Suede Bullock, Lawrence Robinson (who has so little identity his first name changes frequently in Bed/Time/Story, until it is finally Laurie)—are rarely seen even through the pained consciousness of their seducer victims, and this may be why the sex in Fear of Flying is much talked about, but rarely happens, just as has traditionally been the case in fiction written by women. Even when it is staged, both the erotic and the emotional possibilities of these scenes tend to be buried in editorials in which Isadora rushes to comment on how “bizarre” the experience was. The sex itself is almost always fantasy. When Isadora has finally “made love adequately for the first time” with Goodlove, she telephones her husband to tell him where she is. He arrives at the pension and makes love to her, without a word or a bruise, while Goodlove watches. Indeed the only detailed sexual scene in Fear of Flying is a fantasy. It is called “the zipless fuck,” which has nothing to do with zippers, but with an anonymous coupling between two faceless strangers on a train. Neither of them has any identity, but the woman refuses to acknowledge even the presence of the man.
Men, making love, life—these are disappointments, but the wisecracks take the edge off whatever anger might be felt. The sense of denial is real, but what is denied seems mainly the need for attention, a need to be fed. In spite of the constant talk about pain, the only real feeling expressed in these novels, apart from love of self, is crankiness, much like that of a child being disturbed from a nap. But perhaps beneath it lies a real fear, of growing up, of facing up to the privileges, the gifts, good looks, mobility, and even sex appeal, that these women have.
To the degree that confession is associated with guilt, that it acknowledges that actions have consequences, Erica Jong and other “feminist realists” are scarcely confessional writers. No worlds, no actions, no emotions or people are observed, much less reflected on. Their books are rather complaints than confessions, except perhaps confessions of self-adoration. As Fear of Flying ends, Isadora is in the bathtub admiring her body.
When Erica Jong backed out of a Smithsonian lecture last December because of their announced intention to censor her talk, she said she had only planned to read the passage she regularly reads “all about loneliness” (Flying, p. 302). It’s a dialogue between Isadora and Isadora:
Me: Why is being alone so terrible?
Me: Because if no man loves me I have no identity….
And so it goes for another page and a half. But Jong is no more writing about loneliness than she is about sex. She only says she is. In After Leaving Mr. MacKenzie (1931), Jean Rhys does not rely on the word “lonely” to describe Julia Martin as she checks into the Hotel St. Raphael, Quai des Grands Augustins. But we understand something about loneliness when Julia notices the meager things in her room—the wallpaper’s pattern, spots on the mirror—and when, after six months, she stands outside Mr. MacKenzie’s flat, or follows and confronts him in a restaurant. Rhys makes no mention of the physical rigors of love-making. What Rhys does not let us assume about the facts is the feeling, the quality of the ended relationship, the actuality of pain, of loneliness and humiliation.
Love scenes all happen off stage in Good Morning, Midnight. There is no four-letter language and no money. Yet years ago, in this book, Jean Rhys was able to observe and describe a peculiarly female state of mind, which simply because of the fineness and honesty of her perceptions makes us aware of what is so shallow and shrill in recent women’s fiction. Despicably inert, passive, passionate, the aging heroine, whose looks and name do not seem to matter, insecurely sends away a young, handsome man. Alone, pacing her boarding house room, she then pictures him departing and realizes, ludicrously enough, that he really cared for her: “Put your coat on and go after him. It isn’t too late, it isn’t too late. For the last time….” But many excuses come to mind and she thinks of him saying: “Alors, je te laisse avec ton sale cerveau….” Drinking and day dreaming she then imagines his sudden return, leaves the door ajar, and lies down on her bed. When the door shuts behind him, she doesn’t “need to look.” She knows. It is the evil-eyed stranger who stares at her on one of the landings going up to her room. She looks “straight into his eyes and [despises] another poor devil of a human being for the last time….” She puts her arms around him.