Fear of Flying
by Erica Jong
Holt, Rinehart and Winston
Since its publication in 1973, Erica Jong's debut novel has sold more than 20 million copies and is now considered a classic second-wave feminist text. Jong turns 70 this year and Fear of Flying, which propelled her to fame, remains the most popular of her 20 books.
In a charming introduction to the 2011 edition, written as a letter from Shanghai to her granddaughter, she notes: 'But my novel was hardly a treatise on the rights of women, though some readers have seen it as that. My rule was always: make the reader turn the page. So I wrote a funny, outrageous novel about rebellion and sex.'
The story begins with the narrator, a Jewish New Yorker named Isadora Wing, sitting on a flight with 117 psychoanalysts en route to Vienna. Of these 117, one is her second husband, Bennett, and six have treated her for various issues: 'I saw Dr Schrift for one memorable year when I was fourteen and starving myself to death in penance for having finger-f***** on my parents' living-room couch.'
The trouble is that Isadora is feeling stifled by marriage, but has been fighting to remain faithful. She has sexual fantasies about what she calls a 'zipless f***': 'It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff ... So another condition for the zipless f*** was brevity. And anonymity made it even better.' Jong's editor wanted the phrase removed, but it has proven to be one of the most memorable and enduring features of the novel.
The action starts when Isadora meets Adrian, another psychoanalyst. She decides to leave Bennett and travel with Adrian, taking him as a lover. While on this journey, she recalls her first marriage and explores her identity as a woman, a wife and a writer.
Jong, who began her writing career as a poet, wrote the novel during her 20s, experimenting with the voice until settling on a first-person delivery in a memoir style. Isadora's narration is neurotic, literate, a bit crude, self absorbed and witty. The unflinching language and racy content caused a divide among readers when it was first published. Jong writes in the 2011 introduction: 'Fear of Flying was despised by prudes, beloved by rebels and rabble-rousers. It was claimed by Henry Miller to be the female answer to Tropic of Cancer. It was said by John Updike to be another Catcher in the Rye.'
Fear of Flying may not reflect our current reality - the social mores, preoccupations and fashions have changed since the 1970s - but it is still a page-turner, and Isadora Wing remains a singular heroine.