How to Save Your Own Life
IN the long annals of the Mini-Me, few have dogged their creators' footsteps or keystrokes with the relentless persistence of Isadora Wing.
Erica Jong's Jong-like character exploded American sexual consciousness when she hurtled into view in 1973 as the heroine of "Fear of Flying." She ripped open the inner world of women's erotic appetites and wounds, a world then terrifying both to men and to many feminists. Breezy, brainy, ironic, truth-telling, her heart boldly on her sleeve — when she was wearing a sleeve — Isadora catapulted her rather nerdy young poet-author to distinction among 20th-century American novelists. In the process, she permanently liberated the word "zip" from its confining monogamous marriage to "code."
And then she never went away.
Isadora Wing's shadow, a bit more amplitudinous after 33 years, falls across every page of Erica Jong's 20th book, the headlong, disheveled memoir and "fledgling" writer's instructional she has titled "Seducing the Demon." An honest accounting of a life lies half-smothered in these pages: a true fable of a writer whom the gods first made great with early success, and then tormented with the distractions of celebrity, failed marriages, alcoholism, depression and the near-loss of a beloved daughter to addiction.
The smothering comes by way of Isadora's yadda-da yadda-da voice. She has repeatedly shouldered her way back into Jong's work since "Fear of Flying," sometimes to interesting effect; increasingly, not. With each incarnation she seems less exuberant; shriller; more trapped in time. In "Seducing the Demon," Jong is the speaker but Isadora the speechwriter. The serendipity that animated "Fear of Flying" has grown forced; its often inventive imagery has given way to cliché ("Arriving in Venice from Moscow was like escaping to Shangri-La"). Big names (Streisand, Redford, Goldie Hawn and perhaps upward of 200 others) lie flat on the pages where they were dropped.
These and other transgressions have produced a book with a split personality. "Seducing the Demon" is another of Jong's efforts to consecrate the great passions of her life: poetry in its timeless holiness; the exalted rigors of the writer's life; love and sex in all their maddening worth. But Jong's dyspepsia and blowzy sentence-making suggest that on the whole, she'd rather be chilling on Giudecca near the Santa Eufemia vaporetto stop.
"You cannot tell the truth when words are corrupted," Jong avers early on, quoting herself at a commencement speech. "So language matters. It matters a lot." "How true!!!" the appreciative reader is likely to scrawl in the margins — one of many "How true!!!" epiphanies this book offers. (Others: "You cannot quote Omar and drink Diet Coke" and — showing her Maureen Dowd chops — "We live in a time when the most exalted lie most blatantly and nobody seems to care.") This "language matters" sentiment sets a high bar for much of what follows, like Jong's blurt that "the early 70's were all about the clitoris." (Somewhere, the shade of Richard Nixon is murmuring, "If only.")
Zipping seamlessly along to matters sexual, Jong revisits several of her erotic encounters from back in the day; but the glass has grown dark. A literary luncheon at the Algonquin with a lecherous elderly publisher "whom I'll call Wagstaff" (get it?) segues into Wagstaff's private office, with young micro-miniskirted Erica on her knees before the mottled old devil, "somehow, in unison with Walt Whitman." Her fantasy of having sex with Bill Clinton while dressed up like Clinton's dead mother, Virginia, accomplishes the magic of making Monica Lewinsky look by comparison like Belle du Jour.
"Language matters." But Jong natters. She genuflects to poetry; she exalts Sylvia Plath as the muse of her generation; she quotes Plath and Muriel Rukeyser and many others; but when the chalice of words is in her own hands, she is content to describe a lover's teeth as "Englishly crooked" and report that "on our 10th anniversary, we burned our prenup in a wok with all our dearest friends watching." Learning from Anne Sexton that "the point is to reach out honestly," she reaches out, claws first, to her erstwhile dinner-party hostess Martha Stewart by detailing a tryst with Stewart's husband, Andy Stewart, at the Frankfurt Book Fair — and quotes Andy's trash-mouthing of Martha during the encounter. But — Erica as marriage wrecker? No way! "I was just a pawn in a power struggle, a spear-carrier in her opera." Here is the book's nadir.
And here is Erica Jong's central writerly self-delusion: "What we all live for . . . is what Henry Miller calls 'the dictation.' That's when the words take off on a frolic of their own, when you don't seem to be writing or thinking but rather taking down some divine dictation."
No. How false.
Writers don't "all" live for "the dictation." As advice for "fledgling" writers, the assertion hovers between irresponsible and absurd. Writers, good ones, build their work on a foundation of curiosity and active, patient investigation of their subject. And they build that work word by laborious word. And then they revise it. Two examples among hundreds available must suffice. They involve a pair of writers who interest Jong only as "lovely" dinner partners: Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
Didion, a writer incomparably superior to Jong, isn't into frolic. Her beryl sentences, each word exactingly fitted against its neighbor, are the yield of her legendary scrutiny informed by a worldliness more political than clitoral. Her spare precise locution rewards not spectatorship but collaboration: the reader's full discovery of the dread she leaves largely tacit. As for the equally lapidary John Gregory Dunne, he famously wrote that "writing is manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe."
Herein, perhaps, lies the road map to rhetorical recovery, should Jong ever decide to reclaim her voice from the demon Wing and truly write for her life. It's simple: Drop dictation. Take diction.
Ron Powers is the author, most recently, of "Mark Twain: A Life."