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 …
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