Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Saturday, September 28, 2013

How much mileage is left in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying?

As Banned Books Week comes to a close, I am ready with my review of one of the most controversial novels from the 1970s,Fear of Flying by Erica Jong.

First published in 1973, this frank and forth right look into the sexual challenges facing a woman of those times was banned in France and Italy,not mention stirred a bit of ire amongst Americans due to this book being made possible by a NEA grant.

 With FOF set to release a fortieth anniversary edition next month(with a thoughtful and heartfelt introduction by present day author Jennifer Weiner) that I happen to receive an Advance Copy of,thanks to Library Thing,holding off until this particular literary themed week seemed to be perfect timing. Perfection,however, is a goal that the heroine of this story seeks just about everywhere and in vain.

Isadora Wing is our reluctant guide into her troubled psyche,a journalist and poet with her first poetry collection doing well yet she still harbors doubts about rejecting traditional family life for her art. Frustrated in her work and her second marriage to Bennett,a mild mannered psychiatrist,she decides to accompany him to Vienna for a conference of  his colleagues.

Her plan is to write an article about the event but instead,her mind wanders to a favorite fantasy known as the zipless fuck( casual sex,also known as the one night stand).  Isadora is not shy in her speech about her wants and needs,which at the time of it's debut, was considered rather shocking especially from a woman. Nowadays, not so much but despite her language being saltier than a bag of jumbo pretzels, Isadora has a charm that grows on you. I came to see her as a raunchier version of TV's Rhonda as the pages turned:

During the conference,Isadora hooks up with Adrian Goodlove,an Englishman whose boldness challenges her own hidden desires and level of self confidence. Adrian possesses a rogue's persona which, combined with a devil-may-care attitude,proves to be catnip that she can't resist.

While they do have a few romantic romps together(once Adrian is able to get his equipment fully into gear,that is) and jealousy games are played with Bennett, this relationship is not depicted in the hot and heavy manner you might be expecting here. The whole point of this plot is for Isadora to experience what she believes to be her greatest wish come true but as they say, be careful what you wish for:

Don't get me wrong,Isadora doesn't come to a horrible end because of her affair(and then later choice of taking off with Adrian on a jaunt through Europe for awhile) or winds up crawling back to her husband with a sharp taste of regret on her tongue along with an apology.

Rather,she slowly realizes that while deciding your own course in life is not something to be pursued lightly, holding yourself back with fears and doubts isn't that much helpful either. As Isadora does a mental review of her life and times, one thing that stands out to me is that her writing career has caused more people to throw obstacles in her path than her sexual pursuits have

From the love-hate relationship with her frustrated artist of a mother to the resentment born by her questionably happily married-with-children sisters and the frowning disapproval of a college professor when she confesses to him that she is sick of studying literary criticism and would prefer to be on the other side of the pen,Isadora and her unwavering drive to write and be published gets more eye brows raised at Isadora than anything else.

The struggle for women to have to choose between career and family(and the comments made regarding whichever path said lady takes) is still ongoing and is one of the reasons that,despite the book being very much of it's time, Fear of Flying does have some resonance for today's reader. Not every woman or man picking this up may take to it but the artistically inclined might find some common ground with Isadora's yearning to sing a better song of herself:

When all is said and done, I did find reading Fear of Flying to be quite an interesting experience but I'm not sure that it will be one that I'll be repeating any time soon.

In looking over some of the novels that have been banned and/or challenged over the years for being "sexually explicit", I've come to the conclusion that a number of those authors simply used sex as a means of getting readers intrigued enough to open their books to discover what they really want to talk about,such as class struggles(Lady Chatterley's Lover),the deeper meaning of life(Ulysses) or in this case,women trying to balance out their head and heart choices in their personal lives.

That's not a reproach on my part. After all, catching the eye of a potential reader strolling along the bookshelves is as difficult as trying to get customers to chose your casino or nightclub over the hundreds of others on the Vegas strip. The main difference is that instead of bait and switch, the reader is actually given more than he or she bargained for in a good way.

Isadora Wing may not be your ideal of a leading lady whose footsteps you want to follow in but you have to admire her willingness to become a frequent flyer in her own right. Erica Jong's outspoken heroine paved the way for many others and for that alone, Fear of Flying is worth keeping on the shelves:


Thaddeus said...

Nice! I was very surprised at your description of FoF, because I really expected it to be different. My expectations were especially high because I figured that Story of O & the works of Anais Nin would've done a number on the "boundaries" of erotic lit.

I always say that I'm an egalitarian and a feminist, which is a pain for a straight guy at times. Clearly, some would paint this woman as inconstant and cheap, but the truth is that many women have their sexual power and choices subverted by society, and it's awful, as well as harmful to individual people, marriages, and society in general.

I'm very glad that the protagonist is challenged more on her professional aspirations than her sexual choices. Many stories written today don't do characters the same justice of giving them real (aka non-sex) problems. Various similar works - like 50 Shades - sound like they're just about someone learning how to climax harder...

lady t said...

Thanks,Thaddeus-I was also pleasantly surprised to find such rich character development in FOF and do appreciate some depth in any story highlighting sexuality.