The characters in Erica Jong’s new novel are not like the rest of us. They live in spacious apartments in Manhattan and own ski places in Aspen. They go to glitzy parties and sociable AA meetings and they have cosmetic surgeons on hand to smooth out lines and wrinkles. They share some of the existential anxieties of ordinary people, but such gilded living makes empathy a bit of a stretch.
In that sense, Erica Jong can’t be accused of going after the sympathy vote. Her protagonist, an actress in her early sixties called Vanessa Wonderman, lives with her fabulously wealthy husband in New York. She has a poodle called Belinda Barkawitz and her best friend is Isadora Wing, heroine of Jong’s bestselling novel Fear of Flying. Vanessa and Isadora resemble their creator to such an extent that multiple Jongs seem to flit through the pages of the book.
These are women whose attitudes to sex were formed in the 1960s and they seem never to have reconsidered them, as evidenced by Vanessa’s admiration for the Marquis de Sade. When her much older husband starts to have erectile problems, she advertises for sexual partners on a website and treats it as a joke when one of them sends her abusive texts. In a cringe-making passage, she talks blithely about ‘female circumcision’ rather than female genital mutilation: ‘You think female circumcision is bad?’ she demands of an imaginary reader. Vanessa allows that it’s ‘health-destroying and horrible’ but adds that ‘at least women have other things to think about than their pussies’.
It’s hard to imagine an unknown author getting away with such distasteful nonsense. Vanessa’s throwaway remarks about sex hardly suggest that she will turn out to be a repository of original insights into death. The latter is her real concern, prompted by the demise of her parents and her husband’s near-fatal heart attack. Even her dog dies, following an illness as protracted as that of her parents.
The problem – and I write as someone who has recently experienced similar losses – is that neither Vanessa nor her creator does anything beyond rail against the human condition. I think Jong is trying to be clear-sighted, describing the physical decline of Vanessa’s parents and her conflicting emotions in harrowing detail, but the tone lurches all over the place. Vanessa’s musings on the afterlife, prompted by witnessing her mother’s final breaths, consist of a series of questions: ‘Can an infinite higher power keep all these individual minds whirring at once? How about the minds of all the people who have ever lived? Is it possible that they are somehow all here in the ether, taking up no space, but influencing us?’ No, no and no.
Her artless admissions say a great deal about the unrealistic expectations created by affluence: ‘What was wrong with my generation of women? We thought we would get better and better forever. We thought war and disease would afflict only people on the other side of the world.’ This is not something to be proud of, and such ramblings exist alongside positively excruciating passages about sex. The myth of the G-spot was debunked years ago but Vanessa is a fervent believer, describing her husband’s search for it in rather more detail than seems necessary. (No more ‘wet pussy’, please.)
Her response to all these confrontations with mortality is to have more sex, a solution not universally open to people in their sixties and seventies, but lucky old Vanessa experiences ecstasy after flying to India with her miraculously recovered spouse. There she visits a deep cave and encounters a huge lingam, ‘the tireless penis of Krishna, with which he had fecundated the world and all its beings’. She isn’t called Wonderman for nothing.
Jong is widely read and she has always tried to be a radical thinker, but this is a truly awful novel. Its lapses into the phallocentric language of the 1960s are unintentionally comic and sit uncomfortably alongside the reality of modern-day India, where rape culture is a national scandal. In the end, her protagonist has nothing to offer but solipsistic fantasy: ‘How little I knew myself until I descended into the earth in search of my ancestors.’ Even the Indian tourist board would be embarrassed.