HENRY MILLER led me to Erica Jong. I didn’t know the man personally, since he passed away when I was still at the age where The Very Hungry Caterpillar was considered advanced literature. I got to know Miller’s writing during my post-college existential crisis, that glorious time riddled with career-related panic attacks and angsty ennui. I devoured every word he wrote, enraptured by his poetic blood-and-guts call to grab hold of life, drink cheap wine, and be “always merry and bright.” At the time, I was working at a dive serving $2 egg-and-bacon breakfasts to wild-eyed customers who’d just wandered in from all-night raves; “merry and bright” sounded like a pretty worthwhile pursuit.
Miller loved D. H. Lawrence, so I read Lawrence. Miller waxed poetic about the novels of his buddy Lawrence Durrell, so I tried — and failed — to love his writing too. Miller’s lover Anaïs Nin became my literary BFF. And then there was Erica Jong. While working my way through the Henry Miller archive, I came upon The Devil At Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller. Who was this chick that was lucky enough to hang out with my favorite writer and have him sing her praises? I needed to know, which is how I discovered Fear of Flying. In addition to calling the book a “female Tropic of Cancer,” Miller said,
This book will make literary history, that because of it women are going to find their own voice and give us great sagas of sex, life, joy, and adventure.
For the 40th anniversary of the publication of Jong’s novel, not one but three publishers issued special editions. There’s also a film adaptation in the works, so it’s safe to say that Henry Miller was right.
Fear of Flying starts off with Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing on a flight to Vienna with “117 psychoanalysts.” A writer, Isadora is accompanying her second husband, a Freudian analyst named Bennett, to a conference. It’s safe to say that the honeymoon phase of their marriage has worn off. Bennett is kind, thoughtful, and great in bed, but he’s also brooding, introverted, and stable — the kiss of death for Isadora. She loves Bennett, but this whole marriage thing has killed her libido. At the conference, she meets a Laingian analyst named Adrian. He’s a cheeky Brit (clearly a player) who gets Isadora all hot and bothered, even though he’s not all that attractive. He’s also impotent, more often than not.
Isadora has gotten it into her mind that in order to feel fulfilled, she needs to have a “zipless fuck.” This zipless fuck has a few requirements: anonymity, brevity, no talking. Translation: A one-night stand. In this fantasy, “zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.” It’s a 1970s vision of rainbows and orgasms and guiltless naked bliss. As she embarks on an affair with Adrian, Isadora finds herself torn between two ideals: The 1950s version of wedded bliss that she was raised to believe in; and modern-day (for 1973) sexual freedom. She wants so badly to embrace the latter, that she’s willing to overlook her lover’s lackluster skills in the sack.
Fear of Flying is much funnier than I remember it being back during my early 20s existential meltdown — go figure. It’s also an insightful exploration of the conflicting desires to “have it all” (as in family and career) and have an affair. Lots of affairs. After reading Anaïs Nin, the thought, “I’ll just be a fabulous woman who has fabulous affairs my entire life” floated through my head like a mantra on a loop. Unless you are Anaïs Nin, you eventually realize that scenario might not be so ideal. There’s no real connection, and the fantasy dissipates pretty quickly when you find yourself getting sporadic booty texts instead of heartfelt declarations of love. Isadora learns a similar lesson. Zippers don’t just fly away like rose petals, and shallow affairs are usually just that: shallow.
There are some dramatic proclamations in the book like, “Growing up female in America. What a liability!” Jong laments the fact that women are bombarded by cosmetic ads, “whoreoscopes,” and Hollywood gossip, which all sounds very familiar 40 years later in 2013. Isadora’s mother also warns her, “Women cannot possibly do both. You’ve got to choose. Either be an artist or have children,” which is a sentiment Isadora openly rebels against and privately struggles with.
It’s inevitable that parts of Fear of Flying will feel outdated — people were doing a ridiculous amount of therapy at that time, which would drive anyone a little batty. There’s a welcome absence of cell phones and selfies and Facebook stalking. This was a time when people used a landline to arrange a date, and they didn’t have to send three text messages detailing their exact location and ETA prior to walking through the door. They just showed up late, apologized, and ordered some Chablis. Still, Isadora’s quest for mental and physical satisfaction is timeless, as is her struggle to figure out if it’s a stable relationship she wants, or a life of wild abandon. She admits, “I was not a good woman. I had too many other things to do.” After Isadora has a European jaunt with Adrian, the novel ends with a question, not an answer.
In a recent essay in The New York Times, Jong said that her book, which has sold 27 million copies since its first publication, was “a picaresque tale, a rant, a satire, a dirty joke, an act of rebellion, self-discovery and a desperate cri de coeur.” The fashion (and the dearth of cyberstalking options) might feel outdated, but the story is surprisingly relevant. How do you balance your desires with your reality? How can you have it all? Jong doesn’t give simple answers in Fear of Flying, but she poses questions that women — and men — are still asking themselves. Should Isadora return to her stable husband Bennett, or risk it all in search of a potentially illusive ideal? Have you experienced a one-night stand where your Agent Provocateur bralette flies away like a dandelion in the wind? What’s more satisfying: waking up in the morning and gathering your gorgeous lingerie, alone; or rubbing the sleep out of your eyes and making coffee with someone you’ve known for years? Jong doesn’t deliver a sermon praising either path. The beauty of the book is that the answer is really up to you.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Fear of Flying, Penguin has published a Deluxe Classics edition with a Foreword by Theresa Rebeck; Holt has published a hardcover with the original cover from 1973, and a foreword by Jennifer Weiner; and Open Road has published the ebook.
Dina Gachman's comedic blog about the economic divide, Bureaucracy for Breakfast, has been featured on NPR and Chelsea Handler's Borderline Amazing Comedy. You can find her on Twitter @TheElf26.