Jong's 'What Do Women Want?' -- strutting

September 06, 1998|By Lisa Schwarzbaum | Lisa Schwarzbaum,Special to the sun

"What Do Women Want?: Bread, Roses, Sex, Power," by Erica Jong. HarperCollins. 202 pages. $25.

It's an easy segue from reading "What Do Women Want?" - collection of essays from Erica Jong, many of them previously published - to thinking about my mother's clothes closet, where I used to spend hours as a girl, remembering where she wore each familiar dress.

Writers' anthologies often give me that cleaning-out-the-closet feeling: Material that once seemed snappy when paraded in colorful publications tends to look faded, stretched out, or shrunken when piled into a book. And as for thinking of moms, well, who wouldn't, what with Jong writing so intently about daughterhood and motherhood over the years as she has analyzed womanhood through the template of her own life.

Now she's in her mid-50s and saucily provocative as ever 25 years after the publication of "Fear of Flying." She's married to her fourth husband. She's the mother of a 19-year-old daughter who is trying to establish her own writerly voice. And in recent journalistic forays in publications as varied as Marie Claire, the Nation, and Travel & Leisure.

Jong has turned her fierce, media-savvy attention to subjects ranging from Bill and Hillary Clinton to her own facelift.

It's closet-cleaning time. And the first fashions that don't wear tTC well are those tied most closely to the times for which they were created. "Princess as Icon," Jong's weightless consideration of the late Princess of Wales, reads now as just another armload of words to meet last autumn's journalism demands. "The Quest for Stiffness," an inevitable Viagra commentary (even the title, with its naughty phallic thrust, is Jongian), goes limp with trendiness. (She suggests a new name, all too glibly: "Perhaps we should name it after our President, who appears to be one of the few men who don't need it."

Showing a taste for flash as tacky as last season's stiletto heels in "Good-bye to Henry-San," her eulogy to her great booster Henry Miller, Jong writes, "All of us, if we are honest, know that art is a fart in the face of God." (All of us don't necessarily know art by those terms.) And the reissue of her defense of Bill Clinton is mighty unfortunate in its timing: "Since we already know the worst ... history can only ennoble him. Already it seems he is being redeemed."

But for every cheaply made shmatte, there's a nice piece of goods that reminds us why Jong is such an intriguing thinker. Her ambivalence about her facelift is tender. ("My face looks blameless. My soul is all stitched up.")

Her checklist of attributes for the perfect man - and her good humor about the impossiblity of hitting the jackpot with any one mortal-is hard-earned. And in the midst of an undisciplined study of Hillary Rodham Clinton comes this timeless truth: "She is a perfect example of why life is so tough for brainy women. The constant transformations of her public image reveal the terrible contortions expected of us."

Balancing braininess with sexiness has been Erica Jong's writing style for three decades. No wonder much of the stuff in this closet is low-cut and spangly, the garments of a writer who enjoys strutting her stuff.

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a writer-at-large and movie critic fo Entertainment Weekly. She was previously a feature writer at the New York Daily News Sunday magazine and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper. A regular contributor to national magazines, she is writing a book about the spiritual life of Hollywood for Pocket Books.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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