Book Review: Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Note to the reader: this is a review of an adult book, and there are rude words and adult topics. If you think you might be offended by this, please visit the bunnies sub-Reddit.

I continue my reading of women writers with Erica Jong. I picked Jong for a couple reasons. One, I knew she wrote about the human condition from a woman’s point of view. She’d be helpful to me in depicting realistic female characters — especially ones who are in conflict with their society. Also, I’d picked up this book years back when I was working and, reading part of it, found it accessible and fun. I always wanted to read the whole thing. Coming after Nin, Jong was in many ways a continuum: very psychological, presents a character who is steeped in psychoanalysis and surrounded by psychoanalysts, facing an essential duality, and who is preoccupied with sexual fulfillment. D. H. Lawrence is a major figure in both works as well, oddly enough.

Compared to Anais Nin, I found Jong an easier read. In contrast to Nin, this is not a journal, but a fictional memoir, a vehicle for Jong to explore her own passage into fully-realized adulthood. Whereas Nin was a predator, like a tiger-cum-tasmanian devil rampaging through the jungle (well, France) like a trucker at an all-you-can-eat buffet, Jong’s protagonist Isadora is more of a furry little woodland animal that, knowing where her burrow is, and how cozy it might be, is driven to search out new climes. Isadora’s is a circular story: she starts with husband Bennett, goes on an excursion with another man, exploring her past along the way, is dropped off and abandoned, hits rock bottom and climbs out, finding completion as a fully actualized adult, back with her husband. Nin’s Diary is by definition a slice of life, with growth along the way, for sure, but no closure.

Another difference is that Nin had as many quotable lines on a page as Jong has in a chapter. That’s not a slight on Jong, she has some trenchant quotes, such as “Never fuck a psychoanalyst is my advice to all you young things out there” and, regarding her husband’s silent approach to sex: “How did I know that a few years later, I’d feel like I was fucking Helen Keller?” (p. 30). And, of course, it was in this book she introduced the ‘zipless fuck,’ a classic Jong-ism which entered the mainstream in the seventies. But Jong’s book is a narrative, she tells a tale, more so than Nin, who analyzed every moment of her life in her journals.

In addition to her disarming frankness, Jong has a wonderful sense of pathos, and weaves it with black humor. Entranced by the ashing Adrian, who grabs her butt, the lonely, unfulfilled and Jewish Isadora writes “All I wanted was for him to press my ass again. I would have followed him anywhere. Dachau, Auschwitz, anywhere” (p. 24).

And there is the lyrical Jong. Like her protagonist, Isadora, Jong was a poet, and now and then she really lets loose, often delivering sensitive subjects with both resounding frankness and lyricism, often mixing the raw and the delicate in the same passage. She introduces the essence of Isadora’s disaffection thus:

But what about all those other longings which after a while marriage did nothing to appease? The restlessness, the hunger, the thump in the gut, the thump in the cunt, the longing to be filled up, to be fucked through every hole, the yearning for dry champagne and wet kisses, for the smell of peonies in a penthouse on a June night, for the light at the end of the pier in Gatsby…”

Heady stuff.

The feminist

Jong of course is seen as a feminist writer, and she’s got some quotes that show the struggle of women against traditional norms, and against men in general: “The husbands buy power tools to counteract their own sense of impotence” (p. 56), “The virtues of marriage were mostly negative virtues. Being unmarried in a man’s world was such a hassle that anything had to be better.” (p. 77), “men sit there glued to the paper while you clear the table? How they pretend to be all thumbs when you ask them to mix the orange juice?” (p. 77). These are 50’s stereotypes, and maybe they still exist in some corners of America, and for women reading this today who still live with such dinosaurs, the book will resonate.

Some of the passages sound remarkably current. Mockery is still woman’s best weapon against men: “Men have always detested women’s gossip because they suspected the truth: their measurements are being taken and compared…Gossip is the opiate of the oppressed” (p. 97). And this piece reminds me a lot of modern writers like Charlotte Shane — deriding men yet still wanting one thing from them: “Their minds were hopelessly befuddled, but their bodies were so nice. Their ideas were intolerable, but their penises were silky” (p, 87). Classic class warfare: bundle the other class into one easily mocked package, and objectify.

But for the most part, this book isn’t about the war of the sexes so much as a war within the protagonist herself. In fact, Isadora’s even conflicted about her feminism, as seen in this quote: “I’m like the girl in the Story of O. I want to submit to some big brute. ‘Every woman adores a fascist,’ as Sylvia Plath says” (p. 127).

What a gentleman writer can learn from Jong

Like Nin, in Fear of Flying Jong makes clear the level of conflict and challenges that women feel at multiple stages in their lives, from girlhood to mid-adulthood. For Nin, her Catholic upbringing, loyalty to her husband and essential compassion conflicted with her raging need for sensual completion. Her great challenge was overcoming the sense of abandonment she felt from her father having left the family when she was a child.

Isadora has a number of extant though not debilitating issues (like fear of flying), but her main challenge is that she lurches from relationship to relationship out of societal pressures and fear — all the while rebelling against her fear in order to find freedom.

She describes the 1950’s social pressures early on: single men could be glamorous bachelors, “But a woman is always presumed to be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. And she is treated that way: as a pariah” (p. 9). The strictures placed upon her by society and family (of Mother: “why did she say that boys wouldn’t respect me unless I ‘played hard to get’“?) was very much an aspect of her times. She was expected to be a loyal 1950’s wife “expected not to desire any other man after marriage” (p. 8) yet “then the desires came and you were thrown into a panic of self-hatred. What an evil woman you were!…How could you sit at a meeting imagining how every man in the room would screw?” I’ve got two takeaways from that. Number one, there were (and in places, still are) tremendous pressures on women to be/think/act safely monogamous after marriage, and I think a lot of women are monogamous in thought as well as practice. But many aren’t, and they struggle with that as much as many men do. The other takeaway is, as a writer, I have a precedent: women often think just the way we guys do…wondering how a room full of people might be like in the sack.

The other factor, fear, is still an issue today. Jong makes Isadora’s fear when she’s alone in Paris all too authentic:  “I had forgotten how awful it was to be a woman alone–the leering glances, the catcalls, the offers of help which you dared not accept for fear of incurring sexual debt. The awful sense of vulnerability.” and the result?  “No wonder I had gone from man to man and always wound up married.” (p. 267). The privilege to be able to be alone without being harassed was far, far off when Jong wrote her book. American society still has a ways to go.

The essential conflict here is that as much as she dreads fear, she yearns for freedom. Jong presents the duality of her protagonist’s struggle neatly on page 69, as she describes the two men in her life at the time, Bennett (husband) and Adrian (lover): “They only represented the struggle within me. Bennett’s careful, compulsive, and boring steadfastness was my own panic about change, my fear of being alone, my need for security. Adrian’s antic manners and ass-grabbing was part o me that wanted exuberance above all. I had never been able to make peace between the two halves of myself.”

Across the sexual/relationship axes, we also have Isadora the writer pursuing her vocation. Throughout the book she refers to her poems, her notes, always writing, always keeping a journal (very Nin-like). “My writing is the submarine or spaceship which takes me to the unknown worlds within my head” (p. 205).

Yet she really yearns to win “the national Ass Awardthat’s what I want” (p. 75). Two Isadoras: the intellectual and the sensual. Again, a lot like Nin.

I plan to use the elemental forces depicted by Jong in my depiction of a young woman who, fleeing a society that expected women to marry and bear children, finds freedom and a fulfilling vocation (starship pilot), yet still has the social imprinting of obligation toward family. With a dash of sexual desire and a yearning to find a new home base, perhaps even a family, I should have a convincing and compelling character. Duality and conflict, the generators of compelling interest.

Bottom line

I really enjoyed the book. Jong wrote very well, an easy read with a lot of laughs that leaven the heavier messages. She writes a good cycle, of euphoria, self reflection, denial, self-abnegation, abandonment, panic, and the final rise of a whole woman from the bloody wreck of a Paris flophouse.

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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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