Aug 11, 1999 at 12:00 am

In case of this./A story./Subjects and places./In place of this./A story./Subjects and traces./In face of this./A story./Subjects and places./In place of this and in place of this./A story./Subject places./In place of this./A story.– Gertrude Stein

In case of this: Consider the journey of a book – any book – from its conception to its death. Think of the readers it will please, upset, bore to tears or, simply, leave indifferent in the quiet spaces of the library.

Now picture the faces of those avid consumers of rare manuscripts who find delight in the odd scrap of paper. Will they give this book – the book I’m holding in my hands, Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman (Knopf, $25, 384 pp.) – a second glance? Will they understand the reason for its being, its sharp, angry tone? Will they know what this anger is all about, or will they dismiss it as the twice-told tale of an old-guard feminist?

To put it differently, will "the woman" ever be "whole," and will anyone care?

Greer’s new book starts with a regret and ends with a threat. The regret is triggered by the author’s need to remind feminists of all ages that "having it all" does not mean that feminism has fulfilled its purpose and should be tossed out like some foul-smelling dish.

Generous, the threat which closes the argument extends to all sorts of people: tired disciples, champions of new strategies, content professionals.

"Female power will rush upon us in the persons of women who have nothing to lose, having lost everything already. It could surge up in China where so many women divorced for bearing girl children are living and working together, or in Thailand where prostitution and AIDS are destroying a generation, in Iran or anywhere else where women are on a collision course with Islamic fundamentalism ... And the women of the rich world had better hope that when female energy ignites they do not find themselves on the wrong side."

A story: "The obscenity of the female sex is that of everything that gapes open," said Jean-Paul Sartre on a late summer afternoon as his thoughts on Being and Nothingness kept melting away. Nothing terribly shocking about this statement, is there, not once we’ve read Emile Zola’s Nana, with its ample descriptions of vaginal red curtains waiting to split open before a gaping theater crowd; not once we’ve heard Kathy Acker’s voice cursing the moment immediately following Quixote’s abortion? So what if Quixote were "a girl?" What if he of chivalric impulse pulled an Orlando trick on us and – one fine morning – found himself transformed into a woman? What better shift of identity is there? What larger fear?

Greer writes, "Margaret Atwood once asked a group of men why they found women threatening. ‘We’re afraid that women will laugh at us,’ they said. And she asked a group of women why they felt threatened by men. ‘We’re afraid of being killed,’ they said."

Subjects and places: Of all the desperate things Jane Eyre said, there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: "He made me love him without looking at me." And so the beautiful romance unfolds, tortured by its desires, deformed by its limitations, ashamed of its intensity, as Jane – thin, childlike Jane – decides to be the apple of Mr. Rochester’s (now blind) eyes.

"He made me love him without looking at me."

It doesn’t really matter that Mr. Rochester is blind, does it? It doesn’t matter that his wife – the mad woman in the attic – passes the time scribbling on the yellow paper which covers the walls of her room. Is it – as the feminists would have us believe – Mr. Rochester’s fault that his wife is mad? Are we to give up on all the shadow-men of our youth? What, no Tarzan, no Heathcliff, no Werther?

Greer quotes Rik Mayall: "All men are feminists now. It’s the only way to pull chicks."

In place of this. A story:Between delirious flights of language and stories of other people’s madness, Kathy Acker drops the occasional parenthetical reference which forces you to re-evaluate the books you thought you knew.

"In Faulkner’s novels, men who are patriarchs either kill or maim by subverting their daughters. Every daughter has a father; every daughter might need a father. One result, a critic who perhaps does not like women has said, is that women have shifting identities… are sluts (is a whore a slut? was the reporter a slut?), have a hankering for evil."

Subjects and trances. In face of this: How far are we from Faulkner’s women and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper, when equality legislation does not give us "the right to have broad hips or hairy thighs"?

Is it, simply, a question of perception, of furtive glances – "He made me love him without looking..." – of consumerist magazines which keep encouraging our daughters to starve themselves? Surely, something can be done.

"It’s time to get angry again." – Greer

In place of this and in place of this: The Whole Woman talks about body and mind, love and power. In a world of political correctness and (forgotten?) instances of prowess (Greer quotes a Vietnam veteran: "Having sex with a woman and then killing her made one a double-veteran"), the statistics don’t look too good.

"By the year 2020 a third of all British households will be occupied by a single individual, and the majority of these individuals will be female"; and "Congress has voted the states $2 billion to be spent over the next six years on ‘fathering promotion activities.’ Stay-home mums are taking the easy option and doing what comes naturally; stay-home dads are heroes."

A story: Is anger a solution? Would we feel better if we knew something about Her Majesty, Mrs. Lear? Will the journey of this book, from its inception to its death, leave a trace?

If Mr. Rochester had only looked. If Jane had only spoken.