Jong and Winterson

This weekend, I finished Fear of Flying by Erica Jong and began Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. I borrowed Jong’s book, but bought Winterson’s. How could I not with a title like that?

For some reason, I had imagined Jong’s book to be a work from a purely psychological perspective, much like Eric Fromm’s works (The Art of Loving, To Have or To Be). I was surprised that Jong’s Fear of Flying was a fiction novel. I flipped through the book: 336 pages. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to read it.

I have long since been disappointed with many fiction novels. I actively stopped reading contemporary ones, unless I had heard of their value. Even then, it was no guarantee I would like them. Take Oprah’s book club, for example. I picked up Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone after watching Oprah’s book club episode about it. Although I finished reading it, I could not identify in any way with the main character. I was able to understand the feelings, but her actions? No. I found Doris’ actions utterly disbelieving. By the end, I was angry and glad it was over. It’s a sad state of affairs for a book lover and avid reader to put down a book and think: I’m never going to get those hours of my life back. 

I have tried several times to read and enjoy books by David Foster Wallace, notably Infinite Jest and The Pale King. His rambling style exhausted me. I felt like I’d been lead around the backyard on a leash going in circles and circles, often hoping that this turn would bring me out of the rut and into a new direction. But Wallace just kept on going. I put both books down feeling dizzy and unfulfilled.

I read the cover to Jong’s book and thought, Why not?  I had to admit that I was curious to find out what new sex term Ms. Jong had coined in the year of my birth, and so I read. Its appearance at the beginning of the book had me thinking, This is it? I debated stopping a few times during the first half of the book. The lines are dense. Action everywhere. Verbs, adjectives, adverbs. Rich, detailed descriptions. So many of them! It’s a bad sign when I wonder if I want to spend the time reading the book. The main character thinks about sex. A lot. I probably would not have finished it if the story were written by a man about a man’s sexual thoughts for over 300 pages. I would probably have thought him vain and shallow and full of himself. And I did roll my eyes at Isadora. But I kept reading. After a while, I realized I was hooked, even when the thought provoking thoughts entertained by Isadora where thoughts I’d considered in my own 20’s. But those have been gone going on 15 years soon.

Then, half way through, I gasped! Rare are events in books not in the thriller, fantasy, or sci-fi genre that have me gasping. I was in for the long haul. Towards the end, I kind of got the moral that Jong was aiming for. I mean, I understood it but only so far as my understanding could go. But the main character switched just a little too quickly into understanding it all and moving past the rage of being used by another human being, even thought the using was mutually done. The novel was nearing its close. I get that. But it seemed like a cheap move. I guess that goes to show you where I am stuck in my own development. Now, if I only had picked this up 15 years ago, I might have felt differently about Jong’s book. Make no mistake, her writing is an excellent, engaging read.

No sooner had I put down Jong’s book than I picked up Jeanette Winterson’s. I picked up Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? when M and I dropped by the Three Lives & Co. bookstore in the West Village of NYC. I liked the title, and the carefree-looking child in her bathing suit with a beach ball on a beach hooked me. I was hopeful where I should not have been.

Winterson’s book is autobiographical. She was adopted by Pentecostal evangelical parents in a northern England town called Accrington. I am enjoying Winterson’s style, and with writing that covers deep topics in stark contrast to the seemingly all-sexually driven nature of Jong’s. Winterson reveals her true, deep self in many ways. Isadora talks about her body and desires and needs, but not so much the psychological, spiritual aspects of herself as a human being (a fear of independence from men notwithstanding). I am awed how any sixteen year old person could be strong as Winterson is, whereas I have long felt weak, needy, and unable to live without others, so much so that I have been willing to sacrifice my own thoughts, dreams, and desires to do so.

Not Winterson. I could not have lived out of a car and supported myself by work at sixteen. Winterson did. She was determined to go to Oxford and nowhere else but Oxford. I would have been driven crazy with anxiety and fear and depression over being rejected. I would not have been able to stand alone, not like that. Maybe I would have found the way. Maybe I didn’t because I had so much support that I knew it was there when I needed it. Winterson did not.

When Jeanette was discovered to be in a relationship with another teenager, she was outed in church, assaulted and beaten by her pastor, and her mother tried to get her to renounce her sexuality. At the end of one conversation where Jeannette tries to explain to her mother that she is happy being who she is, her mother asks, Why be happy when you can be normal? I almost burst out into tears. I had somehow imagined the question being asked in jest. But it was much, much worse when Jeanette’s mother asked her in all seriousness.

I’m not done reading yet, but I can tell you that Winterson’s book will stay on my shelves for years to come.

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