Why can’t more ‘chick lit’ be like this? Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying

In a recent reading challenge, I read a chick lit novel whose idea of feminism was to avoid men and portray women as either victims of their unhappy marriages or single and thus empowered to almost mythical proportions. Whatever its noble intentions it made feminism look like a new age joke. The best thing I can say about it is that it made me long for something far bolder, more complex, and better written. I’d had Fear of Flying on my shelf for a few years and had started it a few times without finishing. Now I found myself in the ideal circumstances to really enjoy it.

Fear of Flying has a chick lit plot pulled off with more flair, honesty and insight than that normally fluffy genre seems able to muster. Or rather, the novel feels like the strong origins of a genre that has since become watered down and weak. Isadora Wing is frustrated by her unhappy marriage to Bennett and longs for the elusive ‘zipless fuck’ – a ‘pure’ sexual encounter, an indulgence without strings, without power games. She thinks she may have found one in Adrian Goodlove, but in pursuing him she has to face her titular fear of flying – both a literal fear and a fear of freedom, of being single. As imperfect as her marriage might be, Isadora clings to its security and is not devoid of feelings of love and loyalty to Bennett. Also, she is more dependent on men than she would like to be:

“All my fantasies included marriage. No sooner did I imagine myself running away from one man than I envisaged myself tying up with another. I was like a boat that always had to have a port of call. I simply couldn’t imagine myself without a man. Without one I felt lost as a dog without a master; rootless, faceless, undefined” (78).

And it’s true – without a man she does lack definition, at least for herself (less so for the reader). She’s dreamed of finding “a perfect man whose mind and body were equally fuckable” (91) and in this seemingly impossible search for love she’s avoided defining her own identity and desires. “In the mornings,” Adrian tells her at one point, “I can never remember your name” (227).

This seems odd for the narrator of a feminist classic, but this is part of what interests me about Isadora – she’s a mass of contradictions and conflicts. What she has learned from her mother (who is indulgent and loving yet blames Isadora’s existence for her failure to become an artist) is that “being a woman meant being harried, frustrated, and always angry. It meant being split into two irreconcilable halves” (148). However liberated, Isadora has still grown up in a sexist society and been influenced by its dysfunctional ideals. In addition, she happens to be a lustful, heterosexual woman. She’s been a feminist all her life, she says, “but the big problem was how to make your feminism jibe with your unappeasable hunger for male bodies” (88). She wants to be married, but she also sees all the flaws in marriage. Currently, she’s torn between the dull security of her marriage to Bennett and the unstable excitement of an affair with Adrian. Having both passion and security, it seems, is too much to ask. Isadora (like Jong) is also a writer who has struggled for years to find the confidence and discipline to turn her craft into a profession. She may be intelligent and educated, but she can also be terribly immature and irrational. She’s not a heroine I’d aspire to be but I admire the fact that she articulates and struggles with her conflicts, and this is where the novel has its greatest strengths – it’s sincere and insightful in depicting dilemmas some women struggle with.

Jong pulls this off with witty, energetic writing. I love close psychological studies of characters and this one is as fun and inspiring as I’d hoped it to be, rather than being whiny like the watered-down ‘feminism’ of the chick-lit that led me here. However, it occasionally gets slow and dull. Fear of Flying is obviously semi-autobiographical, and Jong seems determined to show off Isadora’s – and by extension her own – intellectual prowess. There is far too much name-dropping and the narrative sometimes gets held up by history lessons, travel impressions and psychoanalysis lectures. This isn’t entirely irrelevant, but it can get long-winded. “I know you’re smart and educated,” I want to say, “so could you cut this short and get back to your sex life?”

This is not because Fear of Flying is a particularly raunchy book. It’s often fun, yes, but it’s the kind of amusement you get from witty rants. The book is about sex, not of it. It’s unabashedly graphic when talking about sexual relationships, but with the exception of the ‘zipless fuck’ fantasy in the first chapter, the sex scenes are brief and perfunctory, not naughty deviations from the plot.

The story follows Isadora across Europe as she vacillates between Bennett and Adrian, and regularly turns to the past as befits the psychoanalytic theme that runs through the novel. We learn about Isadora’s family life, sexual encounters, affairs, therapists, her career, and her first marriage (to a genius who unfortunately turned out to be a lunatic).

Overall I found it inspiring, not because it offers solutions (it doesn’t), not because I thought all Isadora’s problems applied to me or women in general, but because she is sincere and often funny in articulating them, she’s honest about her cowardice, but she also makes the effort to engage the conflicts she finds herself in. It’s the kind of book that promises rewarding rereads, and I’ll definitely return to it.

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