Erica Jong: Inventing Memory

In "Fear of Flying," Erica Jong's first novel, Isadora Wing seemed to stand for bourgeois Jewish women everywhere precisely because of her quirky personal neuroses. Sadly, Jong takes the opposite approach to her characters in "Inventing Memory," abandoning the texture and wry humor that made Isadora so real. Here, she uses the members of her fictional family to capture the quintessence of four eras, creating archetypes, not people.The concept behind "Inventing Memory" is a delicious one -- an epic of four generations of "Jewish Womanhood." And indeed, the first 71 pages, which tell the story of the matriarch Sarah's journey from Russia to America, are so rich that it seems the novel will live up to its ambition. But after Sarah's fascinating story, Jong substitutes name dropping and cliches for character development.Like Sethe in Toni Morrison's "Beloved," Sarah killed her baby in Russia because his screams were leading the murderous Cossacks to her family's hiding place. Instead of the furious girl who comes back to Sethe, though, Sarah's baby becomes a kind of spirit mensch who guides her through her new life in the new world.In America, Sarah gets caught up in the swirling passions of the Lower East Side. This part of the book recalls Francine Prose's writing with its prodigious use of Yiddish, a language that seems to contain the entire ironic, fatalistic Jewish sensibility. "People suffer, god laughs," says one of Sarah's mother's Yiddish proverbs. Another says, "You may have doubts about love, but you can't doubt hatred." A third proclaims, "If a Jew rides a pony, one of them is an ass.""Yiddish wasn't just words, you see, it was an attitude," Jong writes. "It was sweet and sour. It was a shrug and a kiss. It was humility and defiance all in one."Sarah spends her days painting portraits of rich WASPs and her nights with the neighborhood's legions of artists and revolutionaries. "Often I wished I could tell the poor anarchists how unhappy the rich were -- or tell the rich how angry the anarchists were," she says.She's also torn between two men from the two worlds, Sim Copley, a lecherous but adoring aristocrat who is researching a book on "the Hebrews," and Levitsky, Sarah's Jewish, grizzled, impotent employer. The tensions build into a frenzied explosion, and if the book had climaxed and ended there, then "Inventing Memory" would be a gorgeous, moving novella.Unfortunately, Jong spends the next 200 pages squandering the promise of the beginning. In Chapter Four, with the reader hungry for the resolution of Sarah's crisis, the novel shifts abruptly to her daughter Salome's story. Like her mother, Salome finds herself alone in a strange city, Paris, at the age of eighteen, and she leaps into the bohemian vortex. However, while Jong's description of the turn-of-the-century New York throbbed with poverty, decadence and the hard poetry of Yiddish, her portrait of Paris in the 20's is strictly textbook.Salome's story is told in a series of letters, in which she drops lots of names but absolutely no insight. We learn that she consorts with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, "Sam" Beckett and Henry Miller, but there is nothing of these character's character, nothing of the feel and energy of Paris or the excitement of being an eighteen-year old in the center of it all.Similarly, Salome's daughter Sally becomes a famous folk-singer in the 60's, sinks into alcoholism and makes a religion out of AA. Instead of Sarah's pungent aphorisms, she repeats self-help slogans like "Ego equals Easing God Out." Both Salome and Sally become famous icons for their ages, Salome with her book "A Bad Girl In Paris" and Sally with her song "Nobodaddy's Daughter."That's where Jong really sabotages herself. She asks us to believe that these works are the most celebrated products of their respective generations and tells us that their creators are geniuses. It's hugely hubristic for Jong, or any writer, to pile fictional accolades on her own writing, and she doesn't pull it off. The passages she attributes to Salome read like parodies of avante-garde sexual liberation, like Hustler meets Anais Nin."The sun sparkles from the river to my nipples, Val's indefatigable prick is in my reamed-out cunt, and all is right with the world. O delirium of foiling death! Prick of Ages! Thank you God for making me a woman. I collaborate with the Cosmos! I fuck saints and savants, syphilitics and Seventh-Day Adventists, cannibals and choirboys." Henry Miller would probably fall for this dreck, but it still sounds ridiculous when Jong has him write to Salome, "No one has the sheer force of language you have. Even I am dazzled by your immense talent."Similarly, Jong tells us that "Nobodaddy's Daughter" "captured a generation's hunger for an absent father." She has Bob Dylan say "how much he had loved Sally, how she was always his muse." But Sally's lyrics are banal and cliche-ridden. "I seek him in the darkness/ I seek him in your arms/ My nobodaddy daddy/ cannot shelter me from harm," goes the epochal song. Jong gives us no clue as to what about Sally merits all the adulation.Part of the problem may be that Jong is trying too hard to live up to the hyper-sexual reputation she acquired after Fear of Flying. Ironically, Fear of Flying was more about sexual disappointment and confusion than anything else, but it quickly became known as a triumph of the female libido. That could be why Jong weighs down "Inventing Memory" with Salome's cheesy upscale pornographic musings and why she makes the savvy, pugnacious Sarah say absurd things like "I may be a Yiddishe mama, but I'm a red-hot Yiddishe mama!"Its unfortunate, because Jong's strength isn't erotica. If only she could leave the zeitgeist-capturing to Faith Popcorn and focus on the small struggles that comprise a women's life, she could be a devastatingly powerful writer, Jewish womanhood's answer to Philip Roth. Her specialty is the sublime, Yiddish-style irony in the face of angst and annihilation that survives through every Jewish generation. Rather than the red-hot, she should stick to the bittersweet.

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