Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Two Serious Ladies" by Jane Bowles

A review of the novel "Two Serious Ladies" by Jane Bowles (Amazon Vine).


Christina Goering, daughter of a rich and distinguished family is a difficult child. Driven by her fervent imagination she flits between cultish fads, dragging other children into her worlds, children who can’t comprehend and therefore cordially dislike her.

As a grown woman, she lives in a smart house outside of New York - it’s the early 1940s. Soon, however we find her abandoning luxury to live with her lady companion and a couple of male admirers in a cheap leased house on a run-down island downwind of a nasty industrial town with glue factories. Soon she is visiting the roughest dives, making out with the local tough guys and finally allowing herself to be picked up by a gangster.

Her friend Mrs Frieda Copperfield has a puppyish dolt of a husband, endlessly battily curious, self-centred and lacking all common sense (an ENTP I’m afraid). They go to Panama where Mrs Copperfield ends up befriending a local prostitute, Pacifica and living in the “hotel” in the red-light district where the prostitutes conduct their business with visiting sailors.

Various adventures befall Mrs Copperfield and the people she meets and finally she returns to New York with Pacifica and meets up again with Christina Goering. This time at a restaurant where the gangster is conducting his business. And there the novel ends.

Jane Bowles wrote this when she was 26. She was already a bohemian, bisexual, hanging out with W.H. Auden and Gipsy Rose Lee. The novel is billed as a cult classic, her masterpiece: I was therefore very curious myself as to how it would measure up.

To start with, the book is a very easy read. The two women’s narratives are told in parallel with linear plot development and short sentences. It’s at once apparent that the characters are not meant to be real people: they’re archetypes of a kind of intellectual anomie, people who are there to show and work out strategies of alienation. The two serious women of the title are not well-differentiated: I would say that Frieda Copperfield is Christina Goering with competence turned down and neuroticism turned up. In Myers-Briggs parlance, they’re both ENFPs.

What is striking about both women is that they pursue their counter-cultural life-choices with absolutely no thought of the consequences. A rough type (Andy) after being involved in a brawl says to Miss Goering “It would please me in the midst of all this horror to go to bed with you. But in order to do this we’ll have to leave this bar and go to my apartment.” “Well, I can’t promise you anything but I will be glad to go to your apartment” Miss Goering replies. And nothing bad happens to her (or Frieda) - ever. Nobody hits them, rapes them, steals from them or even swears at them.

So I saw this novel in the end as Jane Bowles playing with personal scenarios of rootlessness, the excitement and novelty of random sexual encounters, the accumulation of novel experiences for their own sake: and most of all, a complete and enduring lack of personal emotional commitment. So although as a literary accomplishment this book is merely so-so, as a view of the personal drives and demons of the very-unusual Jane Bowles it’s very interesting indeed.

Note: the subject matter might suggest this is a very prurient book, full of shockingly explicit sexual scenes. But in fact everything is merely hinted at – the most overt description is when the gangster puts his hand on Miss Goering’s knee (having taken her for an up-market prostitute).