THE TROUBLE with feminist novels is that politics gets in the way of fiction, and sorting out the resulting reactions is like extracting Brer Rabbit from the briar patch. In this respect The Women's Room is no exception. The novel's basic thesis - that there is little or no foreseeable future for coexistence between men and women - is powerfully stated, but still invokes a lonely chaos repellent to most readers. In almost every other way, though, the novel is exceptional; and despite its length, for a novel of ideas it is easy to read.
Its characters are engaged in demonstrating a premise most of us are unable and unwilling to accept, yet we care for them, sympathize with them and give them our support. It does not deal with a single, recognizable crisis, such as a woman discovering a new identity, but with a whole era - three decades and a generation of women. Most important, in its ungainly groping way it touches a painful chord, extracts an unwilling realization that its women speak at least a part of the truth about themselves and how our society has treated them.
It has not treated them well. But the book avoids melodrama or self-pity, concentrating instead on the constant, grinding details of life which turn the psyche bitter and the conscience cold:
"I forgot to wash his socks," one of the women stammers of her husband. "They're dark and I didn't want to put them in with the whites, you know, and there were only a few, and I forgot to do a separate load. . . . He was livid, he could hardly move his lips, his mouth was so tight. So I said I'd wash them by hand . . . and I got so flustered, I put the socks in the oven to dry . . . and I forgot the socks and they burned in the oven. What a smell! . . . You should have seen Carl's face!" This long and disturbing book has no complex, honed structure. It quite simply follows 40 years in the life of one woman. Mira's is such a typical story: born and raised in New Jersey; off to college, meets nice ambitious young man, marries, then drops out of college to put him through school; two children, befriends other housewives; the '50s move along, husband becomes successful doctor, bigger house, more money, more leisure - time for thought - divorce.
After a couple of hundred pages the book takes a breath. Is this the end? No, a brand new crew is taken on board and we are off again to Harvard and Cambridge in the '60s. Mira's unusual transition is rather underplayed, but get to Harvard as a graduate student she does. The '60s move along with liberation, Vietnam, Kent State, more friends. Mira completes her Ph.D. and we leave her in the '70s walking alone on the beach in Maine, a teacher at a small community college.
If what happened along the way was a reenactment of the battle between the sexes, the author playing a new set of variations on a theme of Adam and Eve, we could be interested, beguiled and reassured. But what we see, paralyzed like a rabbit before a snake, is the polarization of the sexes. The cracks under the microscope become crevasses, the crevasses widen to chasms.
It is easy to "tut, tut" about the limitations and the emptiness of a New Jersey suburb in the '50s. The new women , thank God, have escaped all that. They have cast it aside as have their men. But, in the book, self-satisfaction is short-lived. It changes to hurt and some surprise when the bright young men of Harvard, the graduate students and husbands of graduate students, go through the same collection of blindnesses and cruelties.
At this point the reader becomes more deeply involved, pulled away from the novel as literature, forced to agree or disagree with the author's grim view of men and women in conflict. The book is extreme, the portrait is skewed, but its cumulative strength lies in the large and diverse collection of women it gathers together. The uncovering, layer by layer, of the tiny bitternesses in what the book calls the struggle to be taken seriously, rings pervasively true.
As a polemic the book is brilliant, forcing the readers to accept the reactions of the women as the only possible ones; closing firmly every loophole that might lead to a better understanding of women by men. But standing back for a moment from the over-whelming political issue, The Women's Room has an amateurish air as fiction. It lacks craft.The narrative seems out of control, characters appear and disappear, loose ends abound, nothing is omitted, and little attempt is made to characterize the men who provide the catalyst for the women's development. The author seems to revel in her lack of control over her narrative: "Do you believe any of this?" she demands brusquely of the reader at one point. "It is not the stuff of fiction. It has no shape, it hasn't the balances so important in art." This lack of shape and economy tends to strengthen the book's political impact but lessens its achievement. Bullied by the author, the reader approaches it as autobiography, looking for documentation, not creation.
The author's unerring sense of women's hearts and minds betrays her only once, but that on a crucial question. Val, the free spirit, the Cambridge feminist who is used as a yard-stick to measure the women's progress, is the novel's Achilles heel both artistically and politically.She has the author's love and sympathy and yet she is a wooden mouthpiece for rhetoric that contrasts oddly with the message the book builds so carefully from the tiny details of daily life. Val's speeches, her visions of Utopia, her idealism, are clumsily integrated into the narrative like uncooked dough. Her final commitment to a kind of sexual apartheid - the result of her daughter's rape - and then her own violent death leave us strangely uncaring. If she is the ideal, we would settle for less.
But flaws aside, The Women's Room is a wonderful novel, full of life and passions that ring true as crystal. Its fierceness, its relentless refusal to compromise are as stirring as a marching song. The reader, a willing victim, becomes enmeshed in mixed feelings. Perhaps that is why I resented The Women's Room in a way I have never resented a novel before. It is a novel that lacks grace, restraint, good Manners, an acceptance of the realities and pleasantries of life. It forces confrontations on the reader mercilessly. There is no way I can even guess at what effect it wwould have on a male reader. I suspect he and I would not be reading the same book, that he would feel angry, misunderstood, maligned.
The questions remain, but the book, at last, just stops. "It is not over. It will never be over," says the author. "But I am finite. That is the only reason this account will end." It could have been shorter - or longer. There is a feeling of continuity, but little sense of hope. Mira could not follow her enlightened, sensitive lover to Africa or have his children because the unspoken, unwritten social contract still demanded as high a price in Cambridge as it had in New Jersey. Mira's separatist stand lacks the explicit drama of Val's, but in its quietness it is complete. It leaves us with nowhere to go, no further compromises to attempt:
"The stone in my stomach is like an oyster's pearl - it is the accumulation of defense against an irritation. My pearl is hatred: my hatred is learned from experience: that is not prejudice. I wish it were prejudice. Then, perhaps, I could unlearn it."