Fear of Dying
By Erica Jong
St. Martin’s Press
By Margaret Sullivan
In the pantheon of feminist writers who emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, Erica Jong may be the only one whose name is permanently connected to a sex act.
Others, of course, have catchphrases of their own. In “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan identified “the problem that has no name.” Irina Dunn believed that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” and Gloria Steinem shrugged off compliments about her middle-aged beauty: “This is what 50 looks like.”
But the words attached to Jong, immortalized in her 1973 novel, “Fear of Flying,” were simpler; they described a pure celebration of sex, the kind without strings attached: no emotion; only sensation.
Her heroine, Isadora Wing (who bore more than a passing resemblance to Jong herself) was in search of something whose first word is “zipless” and whose second word can’t be published here, even 42 years later. In the sexual encounters she imagined, “zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff.”
Given what Jong is most famous for, it’s not surprising that her latest novel is almost as obsessed with sex as it is with death. But in this case, death is more compelling, and it’s certainly ubiquitous.
In “Fear of Dying,” the main characters are not holding up well at all.
Like insects flying into one of those ultraviolet zappers, they are busy shuffling off this mortal coil, one after another.
First, the heroine’s father takes his last breath, then her beloved dog, then her mother. Her husband almost bites the dust, too, but he recovers enough to resume his sex life, thus making it from death bed to conjugal bed in just a few easy chapters. (And that’s a fortunate outcome because his wife was getting desperate enough to meet up with dangerous strangers in hotel rooms after placing an ad on a Tinder-like website called, cutely, “zipless.com.”)
Here, the heroine and narrator is not Isadora Wing, though she makes some appearances as a sidekick. The story is told by an aging actress, Vanessa Wonderman, pretty clearly yet another version of Jong herself, who once again is drawing heavily from her own experience. (Multiple sisters, multiple marriages, one daughter, at least one facelift; if you know anything about Jong’s life, Wonderman’s sounds familiar.)
Wonderman is sexually starving, and looking for love in all the wrong places, as her relatives move in and out of hospitals.
Jong is in her usual latter-day form here: She exhibits flashes of brilliance and insight, and certainly moments of humor, but these are relative rarities that barely keep the reader going through a slog of narcissism and lazy writing.
True, she can be morbidly funny, as when she describes her dying father’s encounter with a hospice doctor:
“Mr. Wonderman,” he says to my father, “I’m your doctor. How are you feeling?” My father pulls out his tube with great élan and croaks, “Malpractice!”
And she can be wise, as when describing the heroine’s relationship with her adult daughter:
“Half of motherhood is shutting up … Sometimes I think we should give every new mother an embroidered pillow that says what Kafka supposedly had over his desk: “Warten (wait).”
But far, far too often, we’re stuck with the Jong of dashed-off cliché, indeterminate plot and sludgy prose. When Vanessa and her husband go to India, the descriptions are like a bad travelogue or an article from a dog-eared World Book Encyclopedia:
“India is so amazingly diverse and huge that you can hardly know it at all without a thousand trips. You have to live there to even begin to appreciate its aromas and its astonishing diversity.”
This is a far cry from the work that John Updike famously praised in his New Yorker review of “Fear of Flying.”
That novel, he wrote, had “class and sass, brightness and bite. Containing all the cracked eggs of the feminist litany, her soufflé rises with a poet’s afflatus.”
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, Updike wrote, “were she young and gorgeous, neurotic and Jewish, urban and contemporary, might have written like this.”
He even compared Jong’s novel to “Catcher in the Rye” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” – extending the tradition of “the New York voice on the couch, the smart kid’s lament.”
Maybe something in Jong brings out extremes in reviewers. By the time she wrote her memoir, “Fear of Fifty,” in 1994, she was getting less enviable notices. Not many, though, were as entertainingly dismissive as Angela Lambert’s in The Independent, which concluded with this zinger: “Jong boasts that after the publication of her first novel readers wrote requesting her underwear – preferably unwashed. In this book she gives it to them.”
“Fear of Dying” doesn’t deserve that harsh a pan. Its triteness is lifted, occasionally, by a turn of phrase that’s worth admiring. (Jong is a much-published poet, and her language can reflect that sensibility.)
“Time is ruthless,” she writes here. “It may be a ‘winged chariot,’ but it’s a winged chariot bristling with automatic weapons.”
And her observations can be keen:
“Death finishes nothing. Death begins the harvest – the harvest of pain, of administration, of clerical work. And the gradual transformation of a difficult parent into a demi-saint.”
All well and good. No one ever said that Erica Jong couldn’t put words together. And she is, after all, an American original, never fitting very comfortably into the feminist mold.
For Jong, the liberated woman is the woman free to love as she wishes, free to seek the perfect union – zipless or committed, momentary or forever, or anything in between. She prizes independence, yes, but always relationship, too.
Writer of poetry, not manifesto, Jong has long seemed less inclined to burn her bra than to power-shop at La Perla for the very best push-up.
In short, Jong is the feminist fish who does need a bicycle. Which is part of why she has remained interesting and worth keeping tabs on for four decades. But none of that can make “Fear of Dying” a good novel.
As undisciplined as a spoiled child, it lacks both palpable plot and real characters other than its frazzled and self-involved narrator. “Dying” is a collection of distractions, not a cohesive work of fiction.
It certainly never soars, as “Flying” did. Nor does it deliver on its implied promise: to provide a worthy bookend for that famous predecessor, one that grapples with the end of life as freshly as the earlier novel grappled with adventurous youth.
And that’s disappointing. Jong’s originality and talent might have brought something memorable, even something literary, to the fraught subjects of aging, dying and the inevitable withering of the sexual rose. I’d like to read that book.
But what we have here instead is, at best, a writerly hodgepodge with a soupçon of charm.
Margaret Sullivan is the former editor of The News and current public editor of the New York Times.