I’m a little surprised that I wasn’t more aware of Fear of Flying before now, but the timing with which Erica Jong’s candid examination of intimacy and desire entered my life is uncanny.
Jong’s novel follows writer Isadora Wing during a working vacation with her analyst husband Bennett. At 29, Isadora is on her second marriage, and consumed by contradictory longings. She fantasizes about satisfying her hunger for adventure and warmth with a ‘zipless fuck,’ her pet term for a no-strings-attached erotic experience with a stranger. At the same time, she’s filled with guilt at the mere thought of sleeping with a man other than Bennett; and, an analysis patient for most of her life, she’s highly aware of, but also guilty for, her own boundless capacity for self-reproach.
During the trip, Isadora becomes obsessed with Adrian, an existentialist and analyst with whom she begins a very conspicuous affair. Torn between the security of her familiar unhappiness with Bennett, and Adrian’s exotic pull, Isadora reflects on how she came to this exhausting point. The highly autobiographical story looks back on Isadora’s life from her childhood to her present, exploring the paradoxical demands made on women by biology and society, and the profound fuckwittery therein. It does so beautifully, incisively, hilariously, and empathetically.
I am nearly Isadora’s age, and although I’ve never been married, I’ve been in enough long term relationships with men to recognize myself in Isadora. Frustrated by the way that I, and my partners, have failed to measure up to the ideal promised in Western romantic narratives, I’ve sought out books by women that take a frank look at relationships. For instance, Alice Munro’s No Love Lost is one of my favorite books about love (and lack thereof). But Fear of Flying articulated my frustrations and helplessness about being a woman more than anything I’ve ever read.
At the thumping heart of Jong’s masterpiece is the cognitive dissonance inherent in being female. Isadora is torn between living as an independent woman and living as half of a unit; exhausted by the near impossibility of total parity in communion with a man, and the infuriating, back-breaking conflict between desire for freedom and excitement, and her fear of being alone.
As much as I’ve devoured Alice Munro and the works of other women writers who have helped me resolve my murky thoughts about hating men while also loving them, I’ve never felt my own sadness articulated as acutely, or with the same elegance, as in Fear of Flying.
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The dilemmas illuminated in Fear of Flying are depressing, and possibly unresolvable. The zipless fuck Isadora craves may not exist. The emotionally intelligent, empathetic partner she and her friends pine for may not either; and even if he does, he may not measure up to The Man—the One Man to Rule Them All—whom Isadora and her friends have been taught by fiction and media to wait for.
But it was comforting to see my angst described so articulately and empathetically by Jong. Comforting, and validating. I think that will probably be the case for other women who read this book for a long time to come.
Unfortunate though that may be for us as a gender, it means that for the foreseeable future Fear of Flying will remain as necessary as it is beautiful. And if more women, and people of all genders, can admit to feeling the same conflicting pulls as Isadora, perhaps one day the angst that accompanies those desires might not be so unbearable.
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Body image: Korney Violin / Unsplash