Smart and funny, shrewd and bawdy, 40 years after publication, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying remains timely in its concerns.
Fear of FlyingPublisher: Penguin
Length: 299 pages
Author: Erica Jong
Publication date: 2013-09
"The Zipless Fuck was more than a fuck. It was a platonic ideal... For the true, ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never got to know the man very well."
-- Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Forty years after publication, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying remains timely in its concerns. In the novel, Jong’s alter ego, Isadora Wing, grapples with conflicting desires for marital stability and the zipless fuck’s sexual freedom. Oh, how Isadora wants: unfettered sex, passion, adoration, unbounded love, emotional connection, intellectual communion.
Bouncing between her emotionally rigid husband, Bennett, and the alluringly unavailable Adrian Goodlove, Isadora temporarily bolts, leaving her staid marriage for a truncated European odyssey. She doesn’t quite find the zipless fuck, but she does come closer to finding herself.
As Fear of Flying opens, Isadora is far from reconciling her desires. Along with her psychiatrist spouse, Isadora is en route to a psychoanalytical congress in Vienna. On their flight are 117 fellow psychoanalysts, many of whom have treated Isadora. It is the early '70s, and Freud still holds sway over the psychiatric establishment. Jong’s depiction of this motley crew is hilariously funny; throughout Fear of Flying she takes every opportunity to poke fun at the cast, endearing Isadora to the reader.
Although Jong denies it, Fear of Flying, and its narrator’s subsequent adventures in How to Save Your Own Life (1977) and Parachutes and Kisses (1984) reads as veiled autobiography. In the novels, Erica Mann Jong becomes Isadora White Wing. The parallels are endless. The men, and later, the daughter, barely change from life to fiction. Nor do the women’s appearances: both Jong and Wing are petite, blue-eyed blondes.
Upon their arrival in Vienna, Isadora and Bennett meet English psychoanalyst Adrian Goodlove (Jong adores all forms of wordplay, including puns). Isadora realizes Goodlove is a slimy sort, but this doesn’t stop her from falling madly in lust with him. He is divorced, with a girlfriend and two young children back home. Alternately sneering and adoring, often in the same breath, he insults Isadora’s bourgeois tendencies while concealing his own. As for the zipless fuck, he’s a bust: impotence rules the day.
No matter. Isadora, admitting her taste in men dubious, is besotted. Besotted enough to take off with Goodlove. The pair bounce across Europe in his two-seater, drinking too much, arguing, failing to have intercourse, camping at grubby campsites. As they careen through Germany, Italy, then back through France, with minimal urging from Adrian, Isadora obligingly spills her life story.
Isadora White grew up a postwar child of privilege on New York’s Upper West Side. The child of artistic parents who made a killing selling tchtochkes (Yiddish for “worthless ornaments”, “decorative junk” or just “junk”), she attends the High School of Performing Arts, then Barnard College. At Barnard, she meets first husband Brian Stollerman. Stollerman seems to be her soul mate: a brilliant young man, he can outrun her intellect. Unfortunately, his brilliance edges into psychosis, and the marriage is annulled.
Isadora, only 22, is devastated. Joining girlfriend Pia in Europe, the women sleep around indiscriminately, wondering why they remain miserable.
The best part of these adventures seemed to be the way we went into hysterics describing them to each other. Otherwise, they were mostly joyless. We were attracted to men, but when it came to understanding and good talk, we needed each other. Gradually, the men were reduced to sex objects... Eventually we came to accept the lying and the role-playing and the compromises so completely that they were invisible—even to ourselves.
Back home, trying to finish a doctoral program in English literature, Isadora meets Charlie Fielding, failed composer. In this novel of unappealing men, Charlie is the most unappealing. Isadora catalogs Charlie’s whining, his anxiety attacks, his repulsive lack of grooming. Atop all this, Charlie has a girlfriend in Paris, whom he uses as an excuse to treat Isadora badly. Nevertheless Isadora falls for him. Why? His tastes in music are identical to her father’s: Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Gershwin.
When he dumps her, she moons after him, rejoining Pia in Europe, sleeping around more, casting about for role models. Alas, Simone de Beauvoir did not make a move without Sartre’s approval. Lessing’s Anna Wulf was inorgasmic without love. That leaves Colette, and any reader of an honest biography knows Colette was indeed a liberated woman—and a terribly selfish one who treated her daughter abominably.
Back in the States once more, she meets Bennett Wing at a party. “Since my first husband had been psychotic, it seemed quite natural to want to marry a psychiatrist the second time around. As an antidote, say.”
There is an element of humor to this, but it helps explain the marriage, for the couple is a radical mismatch: Isadora is an assimilated Jew, playful and expressive. Bennett is a chilly, repressed, unhappy Chinese-American utterly lacking spontaneity. In today’s parlance, theirs is a marriage of co-dependency, and as Fear of Flying progresses, it unravels.
Bennett’s coldness is exemplified by a Christmas in Paris, early in their marriage: inexplicably, he refuses to speak with Isadora, who ends up on the floor, clinging to his pant leg, begging him to talk. The scene is horrible, both in Bennett’s treatment of Isadora and in how willingly she abases herself. Yet he also supports her writing, both psychologically and financially. By the time the novel begins, they cannot decide whether to have a child or divorce.
In the end, Isadora lands in Paris, alone and terrified. Modern female readers of Fear of Flying may struggle with the closing scenes as Isadora decompensates without a man to hold her hand. She manages to find a hotel room, where she is too terrified even to use the bathroom. She realizes she needs to do better for herself. But how?
The conclusion is, well, inconclusive. And that is fair enough, for the problem of having it all remains resoundingly unresolved. For every Sheryl Sandberg preaching at us to just Lean In (and where are we supposed to put the kids? cold storage?) there is an Anne-Marie Slaughter, admitting it just isn’t possible to be a superwoman.
As for the Zipless Fuck, it has degenerated into hooking up, an event neither women nor the men they hook up with seem particularly pleased with. Yes, some women have more sexual freedom than they did in 1973. But nobody seems the happier for it. The many young women “opting out”—returning to the traditional gender role of stay-at-home wife and mother, are startling testimony to the failure of guiltless, anonymous sex and a glamorous, driving career.
In bed and out, Fear of Flying helped women name our desires: stability, equal companionship, and yes, the Zipless Fuck. While the book is dated, it remains an important cultural marker. Smart and funny, shrewd and bawdy, Fear of Flying drew a wide circle of admirers. John Updike liked the novel; so did Henry Miller. Fear of Flying drew a line in the sand and said to men: look here. Show some respect.
Forty years later, women are still drawing those lines.