Somehow, despite the fact that I was an English major, and that I’m female, and that I’m obsessed with mid-century American literature, I’d never heard of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying until recently. Published in 1973 (so, yes, a few years beyond my preferred mid-century time-frame), the book is a seminal work of feminist fiction that encapsulated the dramatic shift in women’s attitudes toward sex, sexuality, and their role in society.
I will admit that the book caught my attention because of its ingeniously sexy cover. I mean, come on, how clever and tantalizingly subversive is this?
It also doesn’t hurt that Henry Miller’s is among the reviews featured on the back.
When I read the description and a bit of the book’s history—and learned that Ms. Jong was exactly my age when the book was published—my interest only grew:
“Before Hannah from Girls, Anastasia Steele and Fifty Shades of Grey, and Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, there was Isadora Wing, the uninhibited, outspoken protagonist of Erica Jong’s revolutionary novel. First published in 1973, Fear of Flying caused a national sensation, fueling fantasies, igniting debates about women and sex, and introducing a notorious new phrase to the English language. John Updike wrote that Isadora Wing ‘has more kind words for the male body than any author since the penning of Fanny Hill.’ Isadora’s honest and exuberant retelling of her sexual adventures—and misadventures—and her insightful observations about marriage, motherhood, and creative ambition continue to provoke and inspire today, and stands as an iconic tale of self-discovery, liberation, and womanhood.”
Though I try to limit my F-bombs in both conversation and in writing, in case you are unfamiliar with Fear of Flying, as I was, I’ll clue you in to the aforementioned “notorious new phrase”: Isadora Wing, the book’s central malcontent and sexual conquistador, is on a wild-goose chase for what she refers to as a zipless fuck. What exactly constitutes such a liaison, you ask? Essentially, a zipless fuck is a sexual encounter with absolutely no pretense, no strings attached, and no promise or assumption of a repeat encounter. In Isadora’s words:
The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not “taking” and the woman is not “giving.” No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.
At the novel’s outset, Isadora is in Europe with her psychoanalyst husband, to whom she has been married for five years. The book is written in the first person and she confesses to the reader that she’s grown unhappy and restless in her marriage. Hence her longing for the elusive zipless fuck. She proceeds to take up with a man who is in many ways the opposite of her husband: disheveled, reckless, impetuous, and adventurous in life and in bed.
But once the initial thrill of a new man begins to wear off, the chronically dissatisfied Isadora realizes she still hasn’t had the experience she’s been looking for. She embarks on a boozy, self-destructive romp through Europe with her paramour, but she eventually comes to her senses, to some degree, having learned a great deal about herself and what she really wants in life (spoiler alert: she realizes that the zipless fuck she failed to find is, in reality, just as unappealing as the servitude of a 1950s housewife).
Though Isadora Wing (who, if you read any biographical information about Erica Jong, you’ll quickly realize is a thinly veiled version of the author) often comes off as a hyper-educated bourgeois princess made self-absorbed by an overabundance of free time, I still very much enjoyed Fear of Flying. Jong makes some incisive observations that rang jarringly true to me, and I think that’s one of the most important functions of literature: making the reader feel as though she isn’t alone. Few things make me more elated than that moment when a writer says something that makes me go, “Yes! My thoughts exactly!” Case in point:
How did people decide to get pregnant, I wondered. It was such an awesome decision. In a way, it was such an arrogant decision. To undertake responsibility for a new life when you had no way of knowing what it would be like. I assumed that most women got pregnant without thinking about it because if they ever once considered what it really meant, they would surely be overwhelmed with doubt. I had none of that blind faith in chance which other women seemed to have. I always wanted to be in control of my fate. Pregnancy seemed like a tremendous abdication of control. Something growing inside you which would eventually usurp your life . . . I just hadn’t the normal female compulsion to get knocked up.
As a woman for whom the child question has yet to be answered, I found it endlessly comforting to know that, even forty years ago, someone else was asking herself the same questions; it makes me feel a little less alone. Of course, Erica Jong went on to have a daughter, five years after Fear of Flying was released. But she allowed herself to explore her doubts and misgivings—not just about children but about sex, marriage, family relationships, and careers—through Isadora Wing, and perhaps in turn Isadora helped other women do the same thing. That’s certainly what she did for me.