Fear of pppffftt

Miss Jong if you're nasty.

I’m reading what I think of as second-tier research for my novel: things relevant to the periphery of its setting (mid-70s NYC). So naturally I landed on Erica Jong and Fear of Flying, exactly the sort of book a teen girl would be reading in secret if it was the kind of thing her parents would be apt to censor, and it almost certainly would be.

It’s kind of funny that I didn’t read the book years ago; in retrospect, it seems like something I should have picked up after The Valley of the Dolls, which I read in high school. I was born three years after Fear of Flying came out, so my associations with it were more along the lines of feminist classic rather than landmark book about sex, though the two things are of course related. I didn’t read it because the title metaphor didn’t appeal to me in the least. I felt like I would find a message therein, that I knew what that message would be, and that the telling could only be cheesy.

So at first, I was pleasantly surprised. Erica Jong is witty. She can be funny. But then the pages add up and add up, and it turns out our narrator – our “anti-heroine” as the inside flap has it – is so profoundly self-centered as to be hard to spend time with. I grew so weary of her angst. I got so tired of the cultural insensitivity/casual racism that she wields with the authority of being raised in a liberal household and being married to/in-law to a global pastiche of men. I got frustrated with her inability to see the way her alleged fantasy life (with its ideal of the oft-cited “zipless fuck”) in no way connects to the sex she pursues. Through much of the book’s beginning, for example, she wonders if the object of her sexual obsession is her longed-for zipless fuck. But instead of ziplessly fucking him, she seeks out a relationship with him instead.

This is because, Suzie Mackenzie noted in this 1999 Guardian interview/article:

…it is adultery, and not sex, that is [Jong’s] subject. She’s been writing about it for 25 years. Adultery, which she dressed up all that time ago as sexual liberation, without ever seeming to recognise that adultery depends for its existence on the ultimate bourgeois convention, marriage. She always had marriage on her mind. If sex within marriage is de facto dull as she claims (‘Sex by definition is something you have with someone other than a spouse…’), adulterous sex is premised on precisely that same structure. But, according to Jong, it is the transgression that defines us. ‘Forbidden sex gives us ourselves because selfhood is still forbidden to women.’ Like the little girl ticked off by daddy, she needs the disapprobation to feel complete.

There’s a passage in the book, near the end, where the narrator rebuffs the come-ons of a French train conductor. At the beginning of the book, she fantasized about sex on a train between two strangers (the scene fades to black as the train…oh, sigh…please forgive me…disappears into a tunnel). But at the book’s end, the narrator is not interested in living out this fantasy with the conductor. This is positioned as some kind of psychological growth, and I couldn’t believe that the narrator failed to see that the difference was an unwanted advance vs. a mutual fulfillment of lust.

There’s a series of dull conversations between the narrator (oh, fine, I’ll call her by her name: Isadora Wing) and the guy she leaves her husband for. There’s even a long conversation between Isadora and herself. The subject of all these conversations is Isadora, and her struggles with decision-making and self-knowledge et cetera. Her own contradictions come up many times, and this starts to feel like intellectual laziness (“That sounds different than what I described earlier? Well, I’m a contradiction! I said so myself.”).

The writer quoted above, Suzie Mackenzie, wrote many unflattering things about Jong in her article, and I’m inclined to be sympathetic, if only because I found Isadora to be poor company over the course of the book. And then there’s the fact that the particulars of Isadora’s life so closely resemble those of Jong’s. It’s hard to separate the two. In the articles I read online, Jong was cagey about the degree to which the book is autobiographical, but I can’t help but think that in today’s marketplace, she’d be pushed hard to publish it as memoir.

From David Shields’s Reality Hunger:

When Frey, LeRoy, Defonseca, Seltzer, Rosenblat, Wilkomirski, et al. wrote their books, of course they made things up. Who doesn’t? Each one said sure, call it a novel, call it a memoir: who’s going to care? I don’t want to defend Frey per se – he’s a terrible writer – but the very nearly pornographic obsession with his and similar cases reveals the degree of nervousness on the topic. The whole huge loud roar, as it returns again and again, has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality, and within that frame, great drama.

Those pieces are all there in Fear of Flying. The mode of memoir in which it would fall today is confessional, the sort of self-focused thing that, say, Elizabeth Gilbert has published. But is this mode of memoir bad? I struggle with this. I am longing to say that yes, it is bad. Because the lens is so relentlessly fixed on the self that it seems to deny the existence of a wider world. But I think such memoirs could have utility to people struggling with a similar set of issues…and I am loathe to deride the project that any writer is driven to complete. I can’t say why I write what I write. But it is kind of bad, isn’t it? I’ll give Mackenzie the last word.

There is nothing in this I want or need. She calls herself a feminist but I, who also call myself a feminist, find no common ground.

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