How to Save Your Own Life
A Book of Common Prayer
About the response to Erica Jong’s new novel, How to Save Your Own Life, it is hard to guess which emotions will prevail on the part of people who admired or liked her exuberant Fear of Flying. Stupefaction, chagrin, the feeling of having been had? Or pity? The feeling that it is after all Erica Jong who has been had, who has trusted people too far, as in a scene from a horrid film in which thin, cruel sorority girls tell an unlovable fat girl over and over that she is talented and loved, that she writes like Chaucer and John Keats, ply her with presents and compliments about her beauty, encourage her to take off all her clothes and confide her most fatuous secrets: then they all laugh and turn away.
Of course, if pity is what people decide to feel, it will be mitigated, as pity always is, by thoughts of all the money she’ll be making. There is no point in talking about How to Save Your Own Life as a serious didactic work, despite the title, or as art, or as entertainment; but it does provide an opportunity to observe the biological structure of the world of books. Without claim to art or interest, the book is like an inert substance, say purple dye, which, dropped into the water of the publishing pond, creeps up various stems, empurpling now this petal, now that, indelibly tracing the cellular relations of things that grow in this rich pool of huge advances, 8x10 glossies despatched in kits to potential reviewers and interviewers, along with lists of questions to ask Jong if—as seems likely—she comes by; excerpts appearing in Vogue and the rest.
There are in fact some good or at least interesting things about the book. In some respects it is an improvement on life. For instance, in life, at an inevitable point in the divorces or psychoanalyses of our friends, we find ourselves avoiding them, ashamed that we can’t any longer endure the selfengrossed and repetitious monologues into which they have descended, angry with them for having brought out these bad qualities of impatience and disloyalty in our character. But Jong’s book, which resembles in every way the ramblings of the deserted friend who has taken to the tape recorder and submitted the unedited transcript, has the virtue that we can abandon it without hurting her feelings or damaging our own self-regard.
How to Save Your Own Life appears to be a mostly autobiographical work about Isadora Wing, now the author of a bestselling book which has changed the lives of women everywhere: her heroine, Candida Wong, had “turned out to be amanuensis to the Zeitgeist…. As Candida felt, so felt the nation.” Despite the riches and fame Candida was brought her, Isadora is not happy, because she is still unfulfilled, stuck in a loveless marriage with the unpleasant psychiatrist, Bennett Wing. She suffers and feels guilty and goes around complaining to her friends. Presently she goes to California in search of the Hollywood dream, there meets a nice Jewish boy, and finds happiness.
In short a plain, wholesome American story, containing as it does that peculiarly American and purely literary substance Fulfillment, modern equivalent of fairy gold, so gleaming and tangible you can even put it in your pocket and carry it from coast to coast. The novelist is adroit in combining all the clichés of two types of regional novel which had formerly seemed distinct, the Manhattan and the Hollywood, in such a way as to reveal that Hollywood is simply a cultural mutation of New York. She says, with characteristic delicacy, “California is a wet dream in the mind of New York,” which perhaps we ought to have seen all along, though from the Western point of view certain differences seem to persist, which are not discoverable if you get no farther than the Polo Lounge. East or West, the nature of her prescription for saving your own life is finally unclear: divorce? lesbian encounters? love? bestsellerdom? So it is hard to say of what use the unfulfilled will find it.
To those who won’t like Ms. Jong’s novel as much as they had hoped to, I suppose will be added many who won’t like Joan Didion’s novel as much as they feel they ought to. But it should be emphasized that there is really no comparison to be made between these books beyond the hardly accidental sense in which they both, together with Bertha Harris’s Lover, and with many other books today, concern strategies which women are devising to survive or adapt (“seeking fulfillment”). To the satisfaction of English Departments, the novels of any period do share preoccupations which ultimately define them, or at least afford matter for the historian which mere demography conceals. So it is just possible to discern a pattern here.
A Book of Common Prayer concerns, in the narrator’s summary, Charlotte Douglas, a San Francisco “socialite” (as they are called locally), who “left one man, she left a second man, she traveled again with the first; she let him die alone. She lost one child to ‘history’ and another to complications…, she imagined herself capable of shedding that baggage and came to Boca Grande, a tourist.” The narrator’s account, so spare it might almost be a screenplay, can be amplified somewhat. Charlotte, after her daughter Marin hijacks an airplane, is disoriented, gives birth to a child who dies of hydrocephalis, wanders off with her first husband, winds up in Boca Grande, a Central American republic, where she sleeps with a few of the influential locals and hangs around the airport, and eventually gets killed in one of the frequent revolutions.
Charlotte’s story is told through the formal device of a more-or-less disinterested narrator, an observer, a kind of new novelist by temperament—Grace Strasser-Mendana. This elderly, dying woman, and real power in Boca Grande, follows Charlotte’s movements or collects accounts of them with the cryptic dispassion of a private eye. Through her we know what Charlotte says: “Gastro-intestinal infection is the leading natural cause of death in this country,” and other trivia. We know what she does: “Here is what Charlotte Douglas was said by Elena to have done with the twenty-four white roses Victor sent her on Christmas eve: left them untouched in their box and laid the box in the hallway for the night maid.” We even know what she wears on most occasions; and about “the safety pin that puckered the hem of the Irish linen skirt, the clasp that did not quite close the six-hundred-dollar handbag.” Didion’s descriptions are a marvel. But it is rather a case where one might say, “I see the clothes, now where is the emperor?” We never get to know or understand Charlotte Douglas at all.
Partly at fault is the overbearing objectivity of the super-cool Sra. Grace, who functions in the narrative like a kind of Intourist guide, rebuffing attempts at penetration while providing an official version of the events which unfold before you as in a movie. And you feel for her the same antagonism. You are constantly wanting to slip away from her and find out what Charlotte is thinking; hoping that, if you can just slip away from Sra. Grace, you will luckily meet up with Joan Didion, a penetrating and brilliant understander and explainer of things (Slouching Towards Bethlehem) as well as a brilliant describer of them. She might let you know how Charlotte Douglas feels when her baby dies, what she really thinks about Marin, what she sees in that boring drunk, Warren.
As it is, one can invent the meaning for oneself (one reviewer believes it to be a story of maternal constancy). Probably the meaning is meaninglessness, or delusion, as Sra. Grace says. Didion seems to write under the rubric of Robbe-Grillet’s dictum that the genuine writer has nothing to say, but has only a way of speaking. “Art is not a more or less brightly colored envelope intended to embellish the author’s message,” said Robbe-Grillet, intending to emphasize that “the work of art contains nothing”—like an empty box—and unwilling to admit what is apparently true: that if the reader opens the box or envelope and sees nothing there, or doesn’t understand what is there, he will adapt this bright container to his own uses, and feel the more pleased with it, the more useful it is.
For a century or more, art has been trying to clear its skirts of didacticism and exist for its own sake; poems have tried to not mean, just be; the stark artifacts washed up by the nouvelle vague try to repel attempts to riddle them. Yet nothing has succeeded in averting the ineluctable tendency of narrative fiction to mean something, even in spite of the writer of it. It is almost as if the interests of writer and reader were opposed, like the forces on a dam.
The utility, for writers, of fiction that eludes meaning is evident. Things that mean something are thought to have messages, and the composing of messages, like child care, seems to be a duty which, in most societies, no one really wants. It gets left to those who can least avoid it: the old, younger sons, and women. “There is not a war in the world, no, nor an injustice, but you women are answerable for it: not in that you have provoked, but in that you have not hindered,” said Ruskin. That’s how it works. George Eliot did not mind, and it is the tradition Erica Jong is writing in.
But no wonder Lina Wertmüller complained somewhere recently that she was not a woman director, only a director. To be a woman writing, like a woman directing, is to be expected to have a position toward woman’s lot, whether she has one or not, and any book falling from the hand of a woman, however it may have been conceived in purest androgyny (even if that were possible or desirable), will be perceived by reader and critic in the light of the author’s womanhood, something that has in the past prompted some famous stratagems of self-disguise. Today it is not so necessary to call yourself George, and there can also be advantages, as Jong points out: everyone watches you and you get rich. But it is not surprising that Didion has tried to avoid the intensely subjective mode that seems to predominate in recent fiction by women and has tried to make herself vanish with the Tarnhelm of Art—or the rainbow cloak of Manner.
Should novels have a message? And the other great unresolved question in modern fiction has to do with character. No objections have yet been raised to the presence of characters in novels, of course; the worry is over whether it is allowed for us to like and care about them. Over whether it is necessary at least to identify with them in order for a fiction to “work.” Few people can have liked the narrator in Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, for instance, but most could identify with him, and few would deny the power of that fiction.
Still the relationship between literary character and reader is as yet little understood. The interesting formal innovations in modern fiction, its preoccupations with language, and with the texture of text, have been held, perhaps wrongly, to preclude or discredit these mysterious processes of sympathy and identification. On the one hand, people seem to feel uneasy about their own wish to read about people they care about, as if there were something essentially unmodern, suspect, sentimental about such wishes, something which will lead to sloppy crying jags in bars. On the other, the fact remains that people did like and identify with Isadora Wing, at least in Fear of Flying, if only because she seemed to have been experienced in some vital way by the author. Because you can’t really know her, your feelings about Charlotte Douglas are much more qualified. What isn’t settled is whether this matters.
Writers lately seem to share a suspicion of sympathetic models, perhaps because, finding so few around in life, they have begun to believe they are only found in fiction, and whatever their aesthetic, writers have some allegiance to mimesis. So we find modern fiction avoiding old-fashioned likable characters in various ways. One is to give them goofy names, as in Vonnegut or Pynchon, subtly depriving them of probable histories—which would imply parents who would actually give them names like Oedipa Maas—and thereby of their “life.”
Or a writer may consider the characters in his novel according to their function instead of as individuals, for instance as in Jong, where they are divided up into four categories: men, distinguishable by “cocks,” women, distinguishable by “cunts,” Jews, distinguishable by “warmth,” and WASPs, distinguishable by “coolness.” The function of the first group is to symbolize authority and to oppress or placate the good character, and of the last to symbolize materialism and introduce the good character to dope and orgies.
Or a writer can do as Didion does, invent characters who are altogether real (who indeed will seem, to some, to have been drawn from recent history). They have pasts, minutely particularized; their peculiarities are their own, elaborately studied, consistent, unique; they even have real addresses and real labels—always good labels—in their clothes.
But Didion does not wish to intrude on what the French call the mouvements intérieurs of these characters, a phrase which suggests, to the English speaker, the queasiness with which matters below the surface are viewed. No polite person should wish to intrude upon a mouvement intérieur. Yet the transaction between reader and character, whatever it is, seems to involve the character’s confidences about his emotions. Without them, Didion’s book is like a serious, exciting, but strangely silent film; the motives, anxieties, passions, and delusions are all presented in pantomime.
It’s hard not to be of two minds about this. On the one hand one feels it’s appropriate enough for an age when meaning, like value, has abrogated its claim anyway and only surfaces remain. On the other is the undeniable fact that this starved, lean prose is like a highprotein diet. Didion’s writing is high protein, but leaves the reader a little hungry for the starchy pleasures of the inner life.
On balance, the form of Didion’s presentation of Charlotte Douglas is the truest one that she could have chosen as a mirror of contemporary reality, where women behave somewhat as Charlotte Douglas behaves, strangely, without being able to explain themselves or be understood. Things are going on that no one understands. Through Grace’s eyes, that is, the eyes of an old woman who has outlived the problems attendant upon her womanhood and gained an honorary neuter voice, we view a woman of about forty, the generation hardest hit. How wise Didion was to avoid the mind of the girl hijacker, Marin. To the really alienated woman in her forties, the Marins, the Nancy Ling Perrys, the Leila Khaleds are not only mysterious; they seem, in their assumption of equality, in their faith in political process and protest, like naïve collaborationists.
Charlotte Douglas seems not to understand, but perhaps rather to admire, her daughter Marin. Caught in the generation of change without preparation, she is a romantic version of the millions of women who decide to go back to school and take some courses, and whose daughters are living with someone, with the mildly complicitous admiration of their mothers. In the drama of evolving consciousness, it is Isadora Wing—patriarch-ridden, victim of sex-in-the-head, barely out of the harem—who is the old-fashioned girl. Charlotte Douglas is the next step, has freed herself of guilt and does as she pleases. (It helps that she’s nearly as rich as the people Truman Capote and other silver fork novelists write about.)
Female power. Didion’s woman narrator, by controlling a trust, controls the republic of Boca Grande, even though it’s ostensibly run by her male relations, whose childlike machismo she does not take seriously. Charlotte takes neither of her husbands seriously. Her daughter is a successful hijacker while it is her male companion who is apprehended and hangs himself. Both Charlotte and her daughter exist in the vivid yet dreamlike world of romance, where women are accountable to no one; they have in fact replaced the men. Despite the formalism of Didion’s presentation, hers is the world of Conrad and Graham Greene, but now it is women who have obscure crises of spirit in seedy hotel rooms and die forlorn and solitary deaths in warm climates.
It makes a change from the fictional world (or the real one) where husbands do not understand you, wives are not fulfilled, children are tiresome, and that includes all the other details of female despair which, without surrendering their authentic claim to our attention, are not such good reading either.
Bertha Harris, too, has created a woman’s world, as relaxed and sisterly and funny as Didion’s is tense and controlled. The rhetoric of significance reverberates perhaps a little too loudly in Didion’s unpadded prose. Harris’s is overstuffed; hers is a crowded female menage so full of characters, mostly wise and witty women, one can hardly keep them straight. And each has stories, thoughts, emotions, and views, presented somewhat haphazardly in a series of monologues and anecdotes separated by little exempla: “Petronilla, who did not wish to marry Flacco, obtained the grace to die; and was buried before his eyes.” It is a kind of burlesque show, the subject of which is all literature and all life, put on for the cheery inmates of a happy lesbian safe house—the grandmothers Veronica and Samaria, a granddaughter Flynn, the mother Daisy, many many others.
A few male characters are brought on for ritual slaughter. There are Bogart and Boatwright, pitiful twins whose mother tries to convince them she is not their mother: “I wish you would rid yourself of that irksome fantasy—in your best interests. It only holds you back.” They will be murdered (while dressed as girls) by the other male character, the Murderer, who lurks from chapter to chapter and is a compendium of macho hangups, violent behavior, and all-too-familiar rhetoric. He will be murdered by Veronica and Samaria, in self-defense. There is about him something at once unfair and queerly plausible; he is a deserving companion to all those misogynist stereotypes—the earthmother, the prostitute with heart of gold, the innocent, pure maiden—who have dominated the literary tradition for so long.
Every aspect of literary and social tradition comes under examination, as in the novel-within-the novel one of the characters plans to write, which begins with “rejection by Father, no good at baseball, seduction by horny rustic grandfather, gangbanged by California motorcyclists, likes it (?). Chapter Two, identity crisis, memory of Mother deliberately (?) parading past in black lace nightie, the march on Selma…,” all the way to the last chapter, which is to end with “grace, retreat into the wilderness, solitude (insert lines from ‘The Pulley’ by George Herbert), conversion to Catholicism, love, death.” Everything is to be included, and if Harris sacrifices traditional narrative qualities like coherence, it is all so funny and inventive that it is impossible to mind.
Erica Jong, the realist, presents a view of women as insecure, dependent, banal, and demanding; Joan Didion makes them as powerful and mysterious as the heroes of romance. Bertha Harris presents a utopian vision of a world where women are in charge of themselves, and where, it is nice to note, they are very good company indeed.