Book Review: Modern Love

Modern Love

Constance DeJong, 219 pgs, Primary Information and Ugly Duckling Presse, and, $18

Fifi Corday, cabaret-performer-turned-memoirist and one of several narrators of Constance DeJong’s 1977 novel, has this to say about her own life story: “If the project was to… become a published success, she’d better make Part III ‘hot and spicy.’”

Composed of a network of narratives that range from mundane to surreal, Modern Love jumps from Elizabethan intrigue to Belle-Époque melodrama, from Oregon homestead to the streets of the East Village, always playfully disorienting the reader at every turn. This is a challenging read that somehow still feels like pure entertainment.

Today, the excitement around the re-release of performance artist and writer DeJong’s first book seems to hinge on a hunger for a glimpse into the 1970s New York’s art scene in the 1970s. Modern Love certainly does provide all the glamour and scandal one would hope for, and could be enjoyed for nostalgia’s sake alone. However, it is much more than simply a salacious record of that time and place.

This is a thoroughly poetic achievement, its freshness and dynamism undiminished by the 40 years that have passed since its debut. Drawing on methods and moments from decades past, DeJong’s clear influences — the most palpable being Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando — situate this book at a crossroads of high, capital-M Modernism and contemporaneity.

The presence of Fifi’s own writing advice signals the subtle meta-fiction underpinning the whole project. Modern Love — which perhaps was picked up for precisely those “hot and spicy” tidbits from ’70s New York — contains complexities that go beyond its positioning as a catalogue of scandal and passion. DeJong’s recursive, racy plots connect reader, writer, and text with the complex and performative traditions in which she made the rest of her career. Let’s hope this book stays in print, but this time for many decades to come.