Well. I wasn’t expecting THAT.
I knew that Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying was a seminal 1970s book that played a role in the second wave of feminism; a follower of Simone de Beauvoir, female empowerment, yada. That was it. I didn’t even know it was a novel. And I certainly didn’t know it was a novel obsessed – obSESSED – with sex.
Let’s take a step back. Our heroine, Isadora Wing, is a woman out of time. What she instinctively wants from life is not in step with what culture, family, and she herself was raised to expect. She wants sex, widely, freely, and she wants to write. But she’s paralysed by fear and cultural norms that exert almost as strong a hold on her as her instincts. She swings throughout the book (pun intended) on a pendulum between good-little-wife and wanton-multipartner-slattern, passionately wanting each in turn. She ends up completely conflicted and confused, not knowing who she is, and chooses instead the culturally available and appropriate hook of partnering up with men and letting them make the decisions for her by default. But this artificial link can only last so long before she breaks out, shards of her psychotherapy shattering around her. (Half the characters are psychoanalysts and the book is choca-bloc with psychoanalytic puns. Yes, it is rather pleased with itself.)
So yes: sex is the most widely known, and most memorable, theme. But that isn’t to say it’s an erotic novel. If you’re hoping for lots of rumpy pumpy, you’ve come to the wrong place. There is very little sex described in the action of the novel itself, and what there is is largely unsatisfactory or entirely unsuccessful. But the protagonist can think of little else, wherever she looks. But it would do the book a disservice to say it’s the ONLY theme. Work is just as key. Isadora repeatedly returns to the idea that it’s through her work – her teachings and poetry – that she has an objective independent existence of value.
For me as a modern reader, it’s in this work theme that the book retains relevance. After all, it’s accepted in today’s society that women have sex drive and desires, and marriage is under sufficient attack that the need to couple yourself to a man is no longer uppermost (though it would be a lie to say the pressure to settle down with a man is past, there are certainly many more avenues open the unmarried today.) But this book is a modern classic for a reason – it does not do the expected route of simply shunning men and embracing the wonders of a career and free love. It grapples with the difficulties of innate drives in cultures which expect the opposite – whether it’s being a housewife re: career or being a bit of a nympho re: sex and the impossibility of coming to a facile answer. The book ends on a cliffhanger, as unable, seemingly, as Isadora to take the final leap and fly.
But try as I might to find some worthy, edifying learning from this book for you, my highbrow readers, I can’t deny it: the overwhelming thrust (yep) of the book is sexual. Just take a second look at the cover above, which you probably thought of innocently as a plane flying through some graphics……… got it yet? Well, for me this sexual sensationalism felt try-hard and outdated. Books like Wetlands (though I haven’t read it, it delightfully had people actually FAINTING at readings of it, more details here) have much more recently explored these shocking territories and pushed the envelope even further. But all of those books owe a debt to this, the frontrunner. So while it may not truly chime today, as a taboo-breaking peek into 1970s female empowerment, it’s one of a kind.