Zip It

Erica Jong’s stunning self-absorption

But if Fear of Flying is hardly a tale of women’s emancipation, it nonetheless raises arrestingly honest questions about desire and commitment, fantasy and fidelity. It is this honesty, along with the protagonist’s boisterous energy and foul-mouthed wit, that once made the book remarkable. “What was it about marriage anyway?” Isadora asked. “Even if you loved your husband, there came that inevitable year when fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the taste buds, no bittersweet edge.” Jong put her finger on a real wound. But the only salve she’s offered over the next seventeen books is that of interminable adultery. And spread over the decades, that salve gets both thinner and more bitter. The voice in Jong’s latest book, Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, is no longer the voice of her spunky first heroine. It is a cynical voice—a catty, peeved, snobbish, bored, and boring voice. It is the voice of a woman who, for all her talk of love, has never learned to love. Jong in her sixties is at once too much and too little like Jong in her thirties.

Seducing the Demon aims to double as autobiography and writer’s guide. Short lists of rules for “fledgling writers” (“Forget intellect”; "There are no rules”) alternate with lengthy recyclings of the author’s old affairs. Sisyphean repetition has been Jong’s formula since her first novel, but with each enlistment the formula grows feebler and Jong’s memory dimmer. The anecdotes are darkened, their author sounds nastier, and the honesty that was once her peculiar virtue hardens into a pose.

Consider the tale of “Dart,” as Jong calls one of her more significant others in Seducing the Demon. He was known as “Bean” in her 1984 novel, Parachutes and Kisses, and identified in Fear of Fifty by his full roman-numeraled name, Will Wadsworth Oates III (not to mention by his curved penis—anatomy always being a more faithful mnemonic device for Jong than psychology). In Parachutes, Bean is portrayed as the heroine’s soul mate: for 400 pages he treats her like gold, and she sobs that she “never” wants them “to be parted.” By Fear of Fifty, her prince has morphed into a boy toy she spots “on a Nautilus machine.” He is still, however, “essentially kind,” and supports her fiercely through a breast-cancer scare—even after she has rebuffed his marriage proposals and tired of him. Reenter Dart in Seducing the Demon. By now a two-decade-old memory for Jong, he has transformed into a monster. Mean, lecherous, and stupid, he now meets her by crashing his vehicle into her house. When he attempts to renew their friendship as she is writing Demon, she casts him away brutally: “Dart had lost his looks, his youth. He was no longer twenty-six as he’d been when we met.” (Never mind that Jong is fifteen years his senior.) ‘Meat from a Truck’ is what I would call this chapter if Dart were still worth writing a novel about.” But, she scoffs, “the meat is no longer fresh.”

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Cristina Nehring, a regular contributor to The Atlantic, is writing a book about women and love, for HarperCollins.

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