According to Publishers Weekly, Andrea Dworkin's first novel, "Ice and Fire," was turned down by 20 American publishers before its appearance last year in England. One wonders why. True, Dworkin, known as a feminist particularly concerned with pornography, takes a flyer on surrealism in the novel, but the style works for her, at least at first.
Her protagonist is marvelous as a little girl on a working class Jewish block in Camden, N.J., in the 1950s, a girl who defies the unwritten law of her neighborhood by making friends with black and Catholic kids at elementary school and walking, in solitary curiosity and defiance, down the blocks where these proscribed people live. Childhood comes to glowing life on this single block with its alleys and, between the houses, spaces mysteriously large to children out playing "witch" on summer nights, the boys chasing the girls, putting the captured one in a homemade cage: "I would play witch, wanting to be chased and caught, terrified to be chased and caught, terrified not to be chased, racing heart. . . . Oh, it was incredible to run, racing heart. . . . If only that had been the game. But the game was to get caught. . . ."
When she grows up, this perceptive little girl is not going to buy into the games men and women play, right?
The never-named character finishes college, has an abortion, and passes the next few years in a squalor of drugs, poverty, prostitution and terror on the Lower East Side of New York. With her friend, like her a well-educated young woman and would-be artist/film maker, she makes her home in a filthy dangerous storefront, turning tricks with men or women for a cup of coffee. Why? Because, in the 1960s, "We couldn't be lacquered secretaries."
As Dworkin seems too smart to slip us the silliest cliche of that or any other decade, we begin to suspect that she has these women where they are to tell us about what men do to them. And tell us she does. What the men do is brutal, wanton, true to the worst newspaper headlines.
There are hardly any conventionally acceptable men in "Ice and Fire." The narrator marries a man who is impotent, and patiently coaxes him to virility, whereupon he becomes a batterer. Her lover she calls "the sleeping boy," a passive ghost whose face reminds her of her brother as a baby. This brother, whom she loved when they were small, has died in Vietnam, but we learn this only in an oddly impersonal reference to the narrator's father having lost his son--as if this quintessentially male death should be tossed in male laps.
In short, once past that brief, magical childhood, Dworkin seems less concerned with her fiction than with its lesson, and there's not much artfulness in the lesson: Grown up men, potent men are dangerous for women.
Dworkin's new work of nonfiction, "Intercourse," starting right off with Alma Mahler's and Sophie Tolstoy's touching diaries of lives with Gustav and Leo, is a far more entertaining work, full of drama, intellectual hops and skips and the surprisingly turned corners that her novel ought to have but doesn't.
Dworkin's question: Can women ever be equal or free if they engage in sexual intercourse? The act (Dworkin reminds anyone who needs reminding) involves male invasion of a private part of the female body--invasion sometimes by guile, often by force, and always within social, legal and religious structures created and run by men. Throughout history men have been extraordinarily prolific in demeaning words for both the invading act and the invaded body. But for Dworkin it isn't just the words that are demeaning. Germaine Greer has said, "Andrea Dworkin has confronted the question that no feminist hitherto has dared to ask, whether intromission is compatible with equal status."
Dworkin herself would hardly claim to be the first, since most of her first chapter is devoted to Leo Tolstoy's exposition of about the same theory in his novel "The Kreutzer Sonata." Tolstoy was no feminist, but he did think that lust demeaned both sexes and that as swords were beaten into plowshares in some higher future of the race, intercourse too would disappear. Countess Tolstoy underwent 13 pregnancies as a result of the act her husband despised as much as he despised her person. After Tolstoy spoke of admiring a vegetarian diet he'd read about, Sophie wrote, "I expect the person who wrote the menu practices vegetarianism as much as the author of 'The Kreutzer Sonata' practices chastity."