Family Saga from Erica Jong

American writer Erica Jong, best known for her sexually explicit 1973 bestseller Fear of Flying, flew into town peddling her seventh novel, Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters (HarperCollins, 1997), a four-generational family saga stretching between Russia circa 1880 and America in 2005.

“I was never much interested in my roots until I hit my 50th birthday,” Jong admitted before her reading. “I grew up in an assimilated family. No one cared much about religion until they got very old and began muttering prayers in Hebrew. And the same thing happened to me.”

The book borrows a line from Isaac Bashevis Singer, who once said the Jews were “a people who can’t sleep and who don’t let others sleep.” According to Jong, “That’s the best definition of the Jews that I’ve heard. For a long time the novel was going to be called People Who Can’t Sleep.”

Since Inventing Memory contains letters, journals entries and various other literary contrivances to advance the story, Jong called it a “collage novel,” and contends that this scrapbook approach has become the great American literary format of our age. Modern writers, she said, apparently lack the Tolstoyan will or ability to write a multi-generational family saga in which “the author sits above his characters like God.”

Inventing Memory may be true to its name in an unintentional sense, since Jong seems to dip into the soup pot of life in Russia and the soup pot of life in America with the same ladle. For this reader, she mixes up the tastes of both and essentially re-invents her characters’ familial past for modern consumption. ♦

© 1997