Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

Fear of Flying was the deeply naughty, wink-wink book of the 1970s. Characters in television sitcoms who mentioned a fear of flying were advised to bring the book along on the plane, so as to escape their phobia. I finally borrowed the book from the library, thirty-five years after its publication, and found as I read it that quite a lot of it seemed familiar. We must have had a copy at home when I was growing up.

It is just about non-stop pornography, a kind of saltier Are You There God, It's Me Margaret for grown-ups. It is also, in a way, a blog before there were blogs. The narrator, Isadora Wing, is a twenty-nine-year-old poet and graduate student who writes endlessly about herself: her marriages, her feelings, her doubts, her fears, her mother, her constricted 1950s-era upbringing, how she wants to dig deep enough into herself to produce the best art she can, but also maybe get pregnant, but also be completely free and spontaneous with some new man, but also not hurt her husband Bennett, but also find true love, but also not be beholden to any man, but also not end up alone ... and so on. "I gotta be me," as the (surely contemporary) song has it. Above all, she doesn't want to be an oppressed bourgeois wife, another slave to men's definitions of womankind, and therefore unable to write poetry. As the novel opens, Isadora is on her way -- by plane -- to Vienna to attend a conference of psychoanalysts with her current husband. Psychoanalysis, a lifetime spent with "shrinks," looms very large throughout the book.

Jong keeps all this going because she is an excellent writer. The novel is almost plotless, but she can wring fascination and humor out of ramblings that essentially would do little credit to a twelve-year-old. At the conference, Isadora does meet and run off with Adrian Goodlove for a jaunt through Europe. Then, what a shock, he dumps her for his wife and children. But while they are together they simply have a lot of sex, or try to, and she tells him whole chapters' worth of details about the sex she has had in the past and why and where. Again and again, at points where another writer's prose would cope with a sunset or a wave-washed beach, and be called "beautiful," Jong copes with paragraphs-full of sexual puns -- and does it excellently.

Apart from plotlessness and really very unsensuous porn, the trouble with the book is that the characters are all so unpleasant, unhappy, wildly erudite, and humorless that it is hard to believe they are real human beings. Isadora's family's screaming fights, her own sexual adventures everywhere with anyone, her teenaged friends' brilliant locquaciousness about sex, her own locquaciousness with her first analyst (at 14, she reveals all -- about sex -- as coolly as a 30-year-old), her various husbands' ponderous pronouncements on literature, psychoanalysis, her state of mind, and sex, all eventually make the reader want to shout: for heaven's sake, not only is this unreal, but the basic need to work for a living, or raise a family, would have given all these characters a far greater challenge than anything they are enduring here. (It is strange that throughout her adventures, not only does Isadora's virtually fatherless family never interact except through horrible fights, but she herself never seems to have to worry about money.) Of course, work and a family are the bourgeois trap. The only mother of a large family in the book is shunted off to Lebanon to have her brood, and the only character holding a non-academic job, Isadora's first husband Brian, goes insane. The chapter on his breakdown is the best in the book.

The little scenes therefore, like Isadora's removing her diaphragm and then feeling her cervix for signs of pregnancy, become an icing on the cake of impossibility. Of course, it's all fiction; but Jong presents this fiction in an unmistakable "you-know-how-we-all-do-this" tone which beggars belief, and after a while beggars interest.

It would be useful to look back and see how Fear of Flying was reviewed when it first came out. There were so many shocking books and movies made in the late 1960s and 1970s, books and movies that seemed to throw off old shackles of decency (or oppression -- take your pick) and address topics that formerly were unacknowledged or at least not discussed in quite this way. Did Fear of Flying bust open doors, or merely follow through doors that had already been opened by somebody else? Isadora would fit perfectly into a Woody Allen movie, for one thing. Like Annie Hall, who is grateful for the strength to leave her room, Isadora cherishes the ability to write a letter as a triumph of emotional health.

So, did Erica Jong create one of the first women characters to bravely face thousands of years of patriarchy, or did she only help create a literature in which the caloric count of semen is considered noteworthy? I think I know my answer, but she entered the pantheon of feminist heroes such a long time ago that if I ever met her on the street, I'm sure I would find it hard to argue with deity.

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