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May 15, 2017 BOOKLIST
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Forty years ago, a poet named Erica Jong shocked, titillated, enraged, and empowered readers with her first novel, the audacious Fear of Flying. Over the course of this earthy, rollicking tale of one woman’s search for fulfillment, truth, and artistic expression, Jong coined the scandalous term “zipless fuck” to describe the ideal sexual experience. But she also skewered psychoanalysis, at its faddish height in 1973; stripped bare the paradoxes of postwar Germany; and staked a claim for women writers grappling with the same profound questions as male writers.
Fear of Flying, translated into 27 languages, has sold over 20 million copies, a count that will rise exponentially as two new editions celebrate this radical novel’s fortieth anniversary. Best-selling novelist Jennifer Weiner introduces the hardcover version from Henry Holt and Company, while playwright, television writer, and novelist Theresa Rebeck kicks things off in the paperback Penguin Classics deluxe edition. Both attest to the fact that Fear of Flying is both a sexy feminist tale of enormous consequence and a resounding American classic.
We first meet Isadora Wing on board an airplane carrying 117 psychoanalysts, including her second husband, to Vienna, home of their guru, Sigmund Freud, until the Nazis forced him into exile. There Isadora meets a diabolically seductive and hedonistic Brit, Adrian Goodlove, the opposite of her fastidious, reticent spouse, and all manner of sexual, psychological, political, and cultural conflicts are vigorously, hilariously, shrewdly, and poignantly exposed and dissected.
In her twenties, Jong, now the author of more than 20 diverse books, earned an MA in from Columbia University in eighteenth-century English literature, had two books of poetry published, and was working toward a PhD when she veered away to write fiction.
“I always wanted to take the forms I knew from my English literature background, claim literary history for women, and write each form from a woman’s point of view. I wanted to write books that didn’t yet exist. So Fear of Flying is both a female picaresque and a female mock memoir.”
But it was rough going.
“My first attempt was with a male narrator. Because men were the literary gods then: Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike. So I thought if I want to be taken seriously, I’m going to have to have a male narrator. I had this brilliant editor at Holt at the time, Aaron Asher. He was Bellow’s editor and Roth’s editor. He asked, ‘Why are you writing in the voice of a male narrator? Why aren’t you writing in the voice of your poems? That is new.’ It was the right comment at the right moment. That’s what a great editor can do. So Isadora became the narrator. She was a poet, as I was, and a wordsmith, which I think is important in the book.”
By writing a novel with, as she puts it, “the intimacy of memoir,” Jong hoped that readers would feel that they were “reading the story of somebody’s life, honest and unvarnished.” Inevitably readers search for autobiographical elements in the novel, and some do exist. Like Isadora, Jong did live in Germany in the late 1960s. But the novel’s infamous torridity is found in Isadora’s exuberant and comic frankness about the human body. Especially the desires of the female body.
Jong observes, “Honestly, early on, people were very scared by the sex and bathroom humor. But I felt that the writers I loved were not afraid of the body, although it was rare for anybody to do it from a woman’s point of view. Except for Doris Lessing. The Golden Notebook was her attempt to bring the body and soul together. That’s what I tried to do, to unite the body and the soul. What made me crazy when I was starting to write fiction was that there were all these mad-housewife novels. I didn’t feel that any of them showed all the dimensions of a woman. Her intellectual life, her sexual life, her life as a wife, a potential mother. What interested me is how we walk through the world with all these things going on in our heads. You’re sitting on a train, lusting after a man while reading a book and thinking, How am I going to write that article? We contain this multiverse, and nobody was writing about women that way.”
Have things changed for women since Fear of Flying broke the gender sound barrier 40 years ago?
Jong says, “Not much. Not enough. Things haven’t changed with women’s pay. Women in this country do not have the support system that childbearing women have in France or Denmark or Holland or so many other places. I don’t think that things are so great for young women if you judge by what’s on television. Women don’t only care about choice. We care about early childhood education; we care about health care; we care about our aging parents. There are so many issues that women care so much about.”
It is testament to both Jong’s storytelling moxie and the maddening fact that, 40 years later, much remains the same when it comes to gender inequality that Fear of Flying still packs a punch. Of course, by virtue of its tremendous influence, we now read Jong’s trailblazing tale as one of many sharply satiric novels by women about womanhood. Yet Isadora’s robust sexual candor remains breathtakingly daring, the misogyny and risk of gender violence she faces are all too familiar, and many still readily relate to Isadora’s struggle to create a richly dimensional and rewarding life in which she can be herself fully and freely.
Beyond that, Fear of Flying is a brilliantly realized work of literature in which deep social and philosophical inquiries are conveyed with courage, clarity, artistry, and bodacious humor.
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