I love the cover of Fear of Flying, the 40th anniversary edition, by Erica Jong. It makes me do a deep, throaty laugh that conveys good fun and decadence. Jong’s novel is one I picked up from who knows where, but I do know it was brand-new. Originally, I thought Fear of Flying was feminist essays, which means I’d mixed up my Jong and my Steinem and my Lorde, etc. Instead, Fear of Flying is a novel that opens with Isadora on a plane with her husband Bennett, who is a psychoanalyst. They are on their way to a big psychoanalyst conference in Europe, so the plane is loaded with therapists — some Isadora used to visit herself — headed to the same destination.
We learn about our main character’s sex drive, her desire to have a meaningless encounter, such as she’s on a train, she looks at a guy, and the automatically start having sex. Oddly enough, Isadora and her boundless, unknowable lust have never cheated on her husbands. First, she was married to a young man later diagnosed a schizophrenic after he tried to strangle her and was institutionalized. Then, Isadora went to lots of therapy, eventually meeting Bennett. At first, I thought Fear of Flying would be in the same vein as Looking for Mr. Goodbar. However, Isadora’s sexual desires are more mental than physical. Bennett is a wonderful lover, though stoic in public. And at the conference Isadora meets Adrian, another psychoanalyst, one who is almost always impotent but spouting his theories on helping Isadora “live” by taking her off for a summer so they can drive around and sleep with everyone, men and women, that they meet.
On the surface, Jong’s book wouldn’t appeal to me. I’m no fan of cheaters nor of “discovering yourself” by sleeping around. But Jong’s novel meshes sex with great humor, feminist theory, and a focus on all parts of the body — not just the sexy ones. The overall effect made me smile.
First, the feminist theory. Isadora understands that women and girls are awash in advertisements that shape their perceptions what a good woman looks like. There’s no escape, she argues:
“And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career — you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in.”
But just to be a feminist and believe in equal rights isn’t easy: “. . . the big problem was how to make your feminism jibe with your unappeasable hunger for male bodies.” It doesn’t help that Adrian, who is British, exoticizes Isadora because she’s a Jew from New York who has features like a Swedish woman. Jong doesn’t let Isadora’s feminism be simple because she has contrasting desires and a need to recognize why she wants a meaningless sexual encounter, even if the guy is gross or unable to be aroused.
And this is an example of Jong getting into the body. I often heard that in my MFA program; students wanted to write about The Body. What did that mean? Done clumsily, you get some abstract weirdness. Done poorly, writing about the body feels meaningless. An excellent writer, like Jong, highlights that most writers miss the obvious: you have an anus, and genitals, and you get itchy when you haven’t showered properly in a month, and sometimes when your period starts in the middle of the night you leak blood all over the floor. These are things Isadora thinks about or experiences, taking the reader that much closer to what it means to be an organism. No one is spared: “That Beethoven could write such music while living in two shabby rooms in Vienna — that was the miracle. . . . Somewhere between the bathroom and the bedroom, somewhere between eating an egg and taking a crap, the muse alights.”
There is no doubt that Isadora is a product of her time. Lately, I’ve read several novels published or set in the 1970s, and I’m getting a better understanding of this decade’s adults. As a child, Isadora visited Madame Tussands with her family, where Isadora saw torture devices. Her mother explains people are more civilized now. As a child, Isadora felt safe thanks to her mother’s words, but as an adult she realizes:
It was civilized 1955, only a decade or so since the Nazi holocaust; it was the eta of atomic testing and stockpiling; it was two years after the Korean War, and only shortly after the height of the communist witch hunts, with blacklists containing the names of many of my parents’ friends. But my mother, smoothing the real linen sheets between which I trembled, insisted, that rainy night in London, in civilization. She was trying to spare me. If the truth was too hard to bear, then she would lie to me.
And in the end, when no psychoanalyst seems to have answers for her, Isadora must mentally work alone through the setting that shaped her, the politics and wars, the magazine ads and maxims about good wives, and understand why she exists as she does, and how she wants to exist tomorrow. Highly recommended classic novel.