How to save your own life by Erica Jong Holt, Rinehart & Winston, $8.95, 310 pp. including appendix of love poems.
Part of the process of liberating ourselves as women involves the creation of our own culture—unique modes of female communication, networks of support, the aesthetic of everyday life. At the same time—perhaps only as a futile reflex of our conditioning in mass patriarchal society—we continue to look hopefully to mainstream culture, searching for signs that popular consciousness has been raised, that women’s situation is being seriously considered. When the makers of that culture are also women, we are all too prone to assume that they are writing or painting or singing for—and to—all of us. Surely the title of Erica Jong’s new novel, How to save your own life, invites us to make just such an assumption.
The novel continues the story of Isadora Wing, the heroine of Jong’s first novel, Fear of Flying. Having written a very similar novel, Candida Confesses, Isadora must now deal with the double anguish of instant fame and disintegrating marriage.
It will come as no great surprise that the recipe she proposes is love. Find the right man and you can leave your stale and painful marriage, assuage your guilt over acquiring fame and its unasked for complement of responsibility, break through your writer’s block, and dissolve all the contradictions of the female social role. Love acts as an invisible protective shield around your life.
How to save your own life opens on the day Isadora takes leave of her husband Bennett, then flashes back to the events which have brought her to this moment. At first glance, her itinerary reads like a public relations dream, but in fact the plot has been borrowed from formula pornography, functioning mainly as a device to get us from one waterbed to the next. Isadora spins through several extramarital affairs, has the obligatory lesbian relationship, joins in the grand finale orgy, and, in an idyllic epilogue, is locked in passionate embrace with her true love in the bedroom of their glass-walled house cantilevered over the Pacific.
What can Isadora’s story tell us about survival? It is unlikely that any of us is going to write a best seller in the next 12 months; nor can we be sure of finding true love. But let us look not at the details of Isadora’s life, but at the sources of her strength. Jong eliminates two of the more obvious ones: ethnic bonds and other women.
Like dozens of American-Jewish writers before her, Jong seems ambivalent about the heritage of Judaism. Isadora’s Jewish identity is tenuous at best. In Fear of Flying, Isadora described her mother as a pagan who celebrated the summer and winter solstices instead of the Jewish holidays. In this novel, she muses that her maiden name (Weissmann shortened to Weiss and Anglicized to White) is counterfeit. Jong also takes potshots at Brooklyn accents and nose jobs (“If all the missing pieces of nose in Beverly Hills could be put end to end, they would reach all the way to Poland”).
Yet when Isadora discovers that Bennett’s lover is a shiksah, she suddenly turns righteous and feels doubly betrayed. Like Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, Isadora takes her revenge by having an affair with a woman who is a “Mayflower descendant.” But while getting back at her husband, Isadora is also betraying her own sex. Disarming and candid, Isadora admits that she makes love to Rosanna out of curiosity and “horniness mingled with what I can only call bisexual chic… It was stylish to have a lesbian affair that year….”
Because the novel is confined to Isadora’s consciousness, its events and characters have no significance outside their immediate effect on her well-being. It is no wonder that Isadora often feels passive, victimized, immobile; her imagination fails to move beyond the boundaries of narcissism to explore the complexity of the world around her.
“Even autobiography is not interesting if it is only about its subject,” Isadora tells us with great authority. “Unless that subject becomes everywoman, unless that story becomes myth, it is of no interest to anyone but the subject—and perhaps her mother.” But the subject of this novel is Isadora, so fragmented by her self-preoccupation that she cannot stand even for herself as being-in-the-world, much less for “everywoman.” She is the quintessence of individualism, loyal to no one but herself—and perhaps to her new lover. Her family, other women, her ethnic roots—all of them Isadora uses opportunistically. In Jong’s world, men and women are equally undependable and treacherous, so sisterhood makes no more sense than any other form of bonding. True love is the only answer.
How to save your own life holds out the promise of a contribution to women’s culture, but then delivers only solipsism and romance. Feminists will realize that this is not the stuff of which liberation is made.
Sony A. Michel, co-author of The Jewish Woman in America, is a Ph.D. candidate in American Civilization at Brown University.