Book review: Erica Jong's Fear of Dying reveals a writer with much still to say
Isadora Wing, Jong's deathless creation from Fear of Flying, has stepped aside for Vanessa Wonderman, who rages against the decline of her powers and the dying of the light
Fear of Dying by Erica Jong (St. Martin's Press)
Fear of Dying kicks off with an ad placed on zipless.com, an internet sex site for adulterers: "Happily married woman with extra erotic energy seeks happily married man to share same." Could this be Isadora Wing again, the Rabelaisian heroine of Jong's 1973 international bestseller Fear of Flying? Who could forget Isadora's fantasy of the notorious "zipless f***" - hot, anonymous, one-time guilt-free sex? The twenty-something Isadora flew free of convention and fear, defied the spectre of the suicidal or timid woman artist, and inspired a generation of women with her chutzpah, talent, intelligence and wit. The book made Jong an overnight celebrity, and moved her from her respectable niche as a little-known young poet to a glamorous life of adoring readers, many marriages and fame as a literary Joan Rivers.
But in Fear of Dying, Jong's ninth novel, Isadora has retired from her erotic exploits, although she lives on as a wise spiritual guide to Jong's new narrator, Vanessa Wonderman. A 60-year-old actress pretending to be 50, married to a rich, adoring but impotent man 20 years her senior, a doting grandmother and a world traveller, Vanessa still has a huge appetite for sex, experience, adventure, variety and more sex: the "life force, the fire that goes from loins to navel, navel to heart, heart to brain". As she ages she misses "the power I had over men", and has had an expensive facelift, painful, but worth every twinge. "After all the bruises were gone, I noticed an uptick in passes made at me."
When I interviewed Jong 40 years ago, she called Fear of Flying "a declaration of independence". With its violation of the verbal and sexual taboos of women's writing, "it was a counterphobic book". Fear of Dying is counterphobic too. Jong noted her difficulties in finishing this novel in her 2006 memoir Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life. "I was terrified of writing my next novel … After many false starts, I finally know novel number nine has to be about Isadora weighing in as a woman of a certain age. That fills me with fear of writing."
Jong has published three novels about Isadora, but at 73, she has long outgrown that persona. She has recognised that she needs to shed the burden of her popular creation, and move on to a new century and a new voice.
Vanessa is not as sympathetic or lovable a narrator as the young Isadora. She is narcissistically obsessed with ageing: "I hate, hate, hate getting older." Even the word "older" is a euphemism for "old".
But how to end the book? Vanessa reads Forster and goes to India to find enlightenment via yoga, cleansing and Tantric sex. In the Arvalem caves of Goa, she has a vision: "As long as fear commands you, you'll be trapped here for ever." There she makes a promise to the gods "to shed that cynical skin and explore forgiveness, humility, love". The Marabar caves it is not, but Jong has turned the page, and as a writer she still has a lot to say.