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NORMAL GIRL, by Molly Jong-Fast

by Dina Gachman

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I found Erica Jong, creator of the "zipless fuck" and other quasi-feminist motifs, two years ago through reading Henry Miller. Now Miller's not exactly known for his pro-woman sentiment, but if he recommended Jong's writing, then I was sold. All I needed to see was the blurb he wrote for Fear of Flying - something about it being a female Tropic of Cancer - before I bought a copy and opened it up, barely putting it down for the two days it took to read.

When Fear of was published, I was probably flipping through pages of The Busy Bee or Green Eggs and Ham while my mother and her friends talked about Fear of Flying and How To Save Your Own Life - shocked and most likely intrigued by its lewd, undaunted look at a woman's sexuality. It's not very common for supermarket romance novels to have characters pulling the heroine's bloody tampon out with their teeth, and if they do, it's written as "porn," and then tucked safely away behind the counter so respectable "ladies" aren't exposed to such, well, truth.

Eventually I picked up a copy of Fear of Flying. The cheesy cover was sort of embarrassing looking, and Jong's penchant for lame Sydney Sheldon-esque contrivances off-putting, but her ability to so freely and honestly write this sexual, emotional everywoman's transformation from someone else's wife or lover to her own (painfully realized) woman, just got me. It was this precarious balance she maintained between soap opera dramatics and hard-hitting truth - a balance that comes through in Normal Girl, the first novel by Jong's daughter Molly Jong-Fast - that I think so many women gravitate towards.

Now Jong's daughter has penned Normal Girl, a similar narrative - a female's identity crisis and subsequent reawakening - that's by no means a semi-feminist manifesto like Fear of Flying, but who says it's supposed to be? Jong-Fast shares her mother's acerbic sense of humor, her Park Avenue Jewish neuroticism and therapy couch humor, but Jong-Fast's work takes place in an era where the bloody tampon scene's liable to show up on an episode of "Ally McBeal" and then spawn a series of talk shows to debate the subject while it's still hot.

It's this cultural apathy, rather than sexism or sexual repression as in Fear of Flying that cripples Normal Girl's heroine. It's a theme that's coming to define this era of cell phones, Jerry Springer, and corporate mergers like disco, Nixon, and "Taxi Driver" reflected the defeat of idealism in the 1970's. Sort of a cultural call to arms. Jong-Fasts's protagonist, Miranda Woke, a cynical NYC "antisocial socialite," has the unfortunate status of child of famous, filthy rich, incorrigible parents. So by default, Miranda's only goal in life is to snort enough coke, throw back enough martinis, and shoot enough heroin to either kill her or, at the very least, completely numb her from the shallow, materialistic circles she's stuck running around in. While her nose bleeds onto chic dinner tables, Miranda runs into a heavily intoxicated string of acquaintances, only holding a conversation long enough to find out if they can supply some drugs or lead her to the next party.

When the book opens, Miranda's convinced herself that she murdered her boyfriend Jeff while they were in the grips of yet another drug-induced stupor. At Jeff's funeral, Miranda quips that the ceremony feels closer to a night at Planet Hollywood than a day of mourning, and, as she so flippantly comments, "you know this is either a funeral or a fashion show, because there aren't enough seats." Everyone on the A-list is present, dressed to the nines in the latest fashions, whether they knew Jeff or not. Miranda's distant, superficial, liposucted mother only cares whether her daughter's stolen her favorite pair of pants; Miranda's very best acquaintance Janice, former model and current heroin addict, sneaks into the bathroom with Miranda for some blow and some heroin to take away the possibility of actually feeling anything for Jeff; and her ex-ex-boyfriend Brett, who deeply annoys Miranda because he's the only decent, caring person in her life, keeps a stash of coke in the lining of his suit just in case his lady love needs a hit.

Basically, it's a nightmare population. The corruption and glitz that is Miranda's reality feels surreal and completely empty. She and her strung out, glamorous crowd waltz through their empty existences like heavily perfumed zombies. Jong-Fast sketches these characters with a distance that poignantly conveys the loneliness Miranda feels - the loneliness that enforces her longing to just be normal, whatever that means. It's certainly not a mother who jets off to Paris while her daughter's trying to kill herself with martinis, or a nineteen year-old girl who would rather die than take a bite of food. For Miranda, normalcy is something she's only seen on T.V. shows.

Initially, you might want to discount Normal Girl's amoral, elitist characters. Who cares about a bunch of whiny, spoiled, callous, self-absorbed socialites anyway? But the Less Than Zero feeling doesn't last long. Jong-Fast, like her mother, has created an engaging female character that stays with you long after the book's closed. There's more to Miranda than Park Avenue and Prada shoes. In fact, she'd probably hit it off with Holden Caulfield if he showed up at one of her parties. Jong-Fast skillfully reveals Miranda's vulnerability without coming across as trite or naïve. You immediately understand Miranda's plan of non-action - it's better to stay numbed by drugs and haute couture, and avoid the rampant phoniness of her world than to actually succumb to it. She's avoiding the "perfectly choreographed lives" of the jet set by following a trail of designer drugs and cocktails, but she's losing herself in the process.

The book's final third finds Miranda recovering in a Minnesota rehab complete with all the stock rehab characters and a television set beaming "Wheel of Fortune." These contrivances feel slightly recycled, and Jong rushes through Miranda's time in the rehab too quickly. You feel slightly cheated, because just when you're empathy for Miranda's at its peak she's treated as a flat, two-dimensional character. Maybe this is Jong-Fast's way of emphasizing the theme of apathy and detachment though language, but at this point the protagonist is too vivid in the reader's mind for such prosaic treatment. Even so, Miranda's return to NYC, sober and lucid for the first time in years, picks up where the first chapters left off, and without the help of a stock backdrop like the "rehab," Jong-Fast touchingly portrays the awakening of a young girl as she struggles to transcend a life of emotional emptiness and self-destruction.

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