Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

To be completely honest, I never felt a big urge to read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. I’m not sure what I thought about the book, but it just never piqued my interest. I knew it was considered important to the so-called sexual revolution, but I am generally not drawn to what I perceive to be social fiction.

We’ll deliberately ignore the fact that Fear of Flying is considered a ‘woman’s book.’ I’m the perception of the book as that influenced my interest in picking it up, but that kind of classification is ridiculous anyway. Similar to what the ‘How to Determine If It’s a Boy’s Toy or A Girl’s Toy’ or whatever it is titled points out, you don’t use your genitals to read books.

Regardless, when thinking about books to read for this blog, I thought about how I’d never felt the need to read Fear of Flying. I thought this might be the time. Besides, I thought I might have a different perspective on this book since I am a man and so many men seem to avoid it (though I did see an interview once where the author commented how men were glad to see their date reading Fear of Flying as it usually indicated a high likelihood of getting laid).

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for, of all people, David Foster Wallace.)

For me, Fear of Flying seemed solidly written, though not particularly groundbreaking. The main character, Isadora Wing, is an intelligent and accomplished writer, but she is overwhelmed by fears and insecurities. She is in an unstable marriage to an analyst on the way to an analyst’s convention. This is certainly the party is sounds like, full of all kinds of people who are audaciously certain they have the final answers on questions they haven’t even fully began to ask:

Most of them were carrying expensive cameras, and despite their longish hair, tentative beards, wire-rimmed glasses (and wives dressed with an acceptably middle-class whiff of bohemia: cowhide sandals, Mexican shawls, Village silversmith jewelry), they exuded respectability. The sullen essence of squareness. That was, when I thought about it, what I had against most analysts. They were such unquestioning acceptors of the social order. Their mildly leftist political views, their signing of peace petitions and decorating their offices with prints of Guernica were just camouflage. When it came to the crucial issues: the family, the position of women, the flow of cash from patient to doctor, they were reactionaries. As rigidly self-serving as the Social Darwinists of the Victorian Era.

Having landed in her marriage the same way that she landed in all of her relationships (as a cure to the ills of the previous one), Isadora is unhappy with her analyst husband. She is swept off her feet by another analyst who is nothing like her husband, and ends up taking off on a whirlwind European tour with him. Of course, though he preaches how she must become independent, and all the ways she MUST become independent, he is really just another version of the same:

When I threw in my lot with Adrian Goodlove, I entered a world in which the rules we lived by were his rules–although, of course, he pretended there were no rules. It was forbidden, for example, to inquire what we would to tomorrow. Existentialists were not supposed to mention the word “tomorrow.” It was to be banished from our vocabulary. We were forbidden to talk about the future or to act as if the future existed. The future did not exist. Only our driving existed and our campsites and hotels. Only our conversations existed and the view beyond the windshield (which Adrian called the “windscreen”). Behind us was the past–which we invoked more and more to pass the time and to amuse each other (in the way that parents make up games of geography or identify-the-song-title for their bored children during long car rides). We told long stories about our pasts, embellishing, embroidering, and dramatizing in the manner of novelists. Of course, we pretended to be telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but nobody (as Henry Miller says) can tell the absolute truth; and even our most seemingly autobiographical revelations were partly fabrications–literature, in short. We bought the future by talking about the past. At times I felt like Scheherazade, amusing my kind with subplots to keep the main plot from abruptly ending. Each of us could (theoretically) throw in the towel at any point, but I feared that Adrian was more likely to do it than me, and that it was my problem to keep him amused. When the chips are down and I’m alone with a man for days on end, then I realize more than ever how unliberated I am.

The bottom line? None of these men are going to fix Isadora. Isadora is going to continue to be unhappy no matter who she is with if she isn’t an independent person on her own first. I probably make it sound trite, but Jong does a much better job with it.

My reaction to the book? Well, I’m astounded that anyone could consider it pornographic. That just seems ludicrous. As for social agenda, I’m sure there is one there…but I don’t think it gets in the way of much. It’s a good solid work of fiction about a character’s need and attempt to become an independent person. This one just happens to be about a woman.

As far as I could tell, that was the big groundbreaking revelation: that women were human beings and operated as such. They are surrounded by forces that attempt to explain and control them, but all without any understanding of them as individuals and without any real authority, just like most people to some degree or another. Perhaps I just come at this book from a different time period, or perhaps I delude myself into thinking that I am more enlightened than I am, but it just didn’t seem that revolutionary a work.

But, all of that is more of a response to the psychological impressions of the book floating around out there rather than a response to Fear of Flying itself. Fear of Flying never claims (other than what someone may have written on the jacket) to be more than a serious work of literature examining the journey of a human character. And, it is that. It is well written and engaging to read. Frankly, I think that is the most important criteria for anyone to judge the book by. Anything else is something other than the book.

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