Erica Jong’s ‘Fear of Dying’ Defies the Sunset of Sex
Two words have vexed Erica Jong for the last 42 years. The first is “zipless,” and the word that follows is not printable in this newspaper.
The two-word phrase, immortalized in her 1973 best-selling novel, “Fear of Flying,” which has sold more than 27 million copies, entered the cultural lexicon as a shorthand for casual, consequence-free sex. It turned Ms. Jong into a feminist heroine of sorts and avatar of female sexual liberation, and helped propel and define her career.
It was also meant to be satirical, Ms. Jong said, but was misconstrued as an endorsement of unbridled lust.
“People so misinterpreted ‘zipless,’ ” Ms. Jong, 73, said during an interview at her Upper East Side apartment. “I say in ‘Fear of Flying’ that it’s a Platonic ideal and a fantasy, and I have never had one, but people seem to overlook that.”
Now, decades later, she has exhumed and rebranded the phrase in her new novel, “Fear of Dying,” which is being billed as the “spiritual” sequel to “Fear of Flying” and is being released on Tuesday.
While “Fear of Flying” shocked readers with its frank depiction of the sexual appetite and independence of its protagonist, Isadora Wing, “Fear of Dying” takes on an another, more persistent taboo by depicting — in blunt, unvarnished detail — sex between older adults. Ms. Jong’s new character, a grandmother in her 60s, is lusty and vivacious and searching for carnal satisfaction at a casual-sex site called zipless.com.
“I’ve always wanted to write the books for women that didn’t yet exist, so I thought, I have to write about an older woman who is sexual, attractive and wants to reach out for life,” Ms. Jong said. “That’s not celebrated, sadly, and I would hope that a lot of older women who read this book realize that sex doesn’t disappear, it just changes forms.”
The story centers on Vanessa Wonderman, a former actress terrified of aging and death. She seeks escape from her sexless marriage to a much older man with erectile dysfunction by searching for lovers online. The surreal encounters that follow — an email exchange with a man who introduces himself by sending lewd photos, another who wants her to wear a black rubber suit, an unsatisfying hotel tryst with an old married flame — leave Vanessa reeling and worried that her sex life might be over. (This being an Erica Jong novel, it isn’t.)
Some of Ms. Jong’s fans and peers are calling the novel a long overdue corrective in a cultural landscape that deifies youth and often ignores older women, or relegates them to the role of spinsters or crones.
“There is this giant void in the culture about women in that age group as heroines, as romantic beings, as sexual beings and as creative beings, and there’s not that void for men,” said Naomi Wolf, author of “The Beauty Myth.” “Women don’t stop being all those things as their lives continue into those decades.”
“Fear of Dying” is landing in the middle of a long-festering debate about the social and cultural obstacles older women face. The comedian Amy Schumer has skewered the frequent sidelining of older actresses in a widely viewed skit built around the farcical — though just barely — premise that an aging actress’s desirability could dissipate in a single day. Sex therapists and gurus have published dozens of manuals and self-help books with titles like “Sex for Seniors” and “Sex Over 50.” There is also the gag book “Sex After 60,” which is blank inside.
But the subject hasn’t been widely explored in popular fiction. “Women were not allowed to have passion at 60,” Ms. Jong writes in “Fear of Dying.” “We were supposed to become grandmothers and retreat into serene sexlessness.”
Ms. Jong started out as a poet, and published two volumes of verse before selling “Fear of Flying” to Aaron Asher, an editor whose roster of writers included Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Arthur Miller. Mr. Asher told Ms. Jong to expect sales of 3,000 copies, she recalled.
Instead, the novel, about a young poet who travels to Vienna with her husband and attempts to live out her fantasies by having an affair, became a blockbuster and cultural touchstone. John Updike compared it to “The Catcher in the Rye,” and Henry Miller praised it as a groundbreaking literary achievement. The book was translated into 40 languages and was credited by second-wave feminists with paving the way for women’s self-expression.
“What was really distinctive about it at the time was the notion that a woman could break out of the conventions of how a woman writer should write, and write with candor and humor about topics that were taboo for women,” said Shelley Fisher Fishkin, an English professor at Stanford University.
Ms. Jong has since published three memoirs, five more volumes of poetry and eight other novels, including historical fiction and a work about Sappho, but nothing has matched the popularity of “Fear of Flying.” At times, she says, she has felt oppressed by being so closely associated with her brash fictional alter ego Isadora.
“Fear of Flying’ follows me everywhere,” she said.
She has been struggling to write “Fear of Dying” for a decade. At first she tried to make an older, wiser Isadora the heroine. But bringing back that character felt forced. “There was so much baggage around ‘Fear of Flying,’ ” she said. “The weight of those expectations was very frightening.”
Ms. Jong eventually sidelined Isadora to a cameo role as a worldly friend, and created Vanessa, who shares some obvious traits with the author. She used the book to explore the wrenching process of watching her parents’ slow demise, her fear of losing her looks and vitality, the joys of being a grandmother and her relationship with her daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who, like Vanessa, struggled with drug addiction.
Ms. Jong’s warm, chatty persona and her tendency to blur the boundaries between her life and fiction often results in juicy reading. She once wrote about a one-night stand she had with Martha Stewart’s then-husband, Andy Stewart, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But the autobiographical tropes can be trying for friends, family members, ex-husbands and former lovers. (Her fourth marriage, to Ken Burrows, a divorce lawyer, has lasted 26 years.) Her sister, Suzanna Daou, confronted her publicly at a 2008 conference about “Fear of Flying,” and has said that the book embarrassed her and her husband by modeling characters after them.
Ms. Jong-Fast, who is also a writer, said she had not read “Fear of Dying” and did not plan to, noting that her having her time in treatment rehashed in fiction “would not have been my first choice.” The scenes from a mother-daughter trip to a rehabilitation clinic appear to be barely fictionalized, and several paragraphs match an account of the episode in Ms. Jong’s most recent memoir nearly verbatim, with identical dialogue and descriptions.
“I don’t read her books,” Ms. Jong-Fast said. “For my mental health, it’s probably better not to.”
A few literary critics have taken aim at Ms. Jong’s self-referential style and habit of recycling material. A caustic review of her 2006 memoir in The Atlantic posited that Ms. Jong was doomed to “eternal self-imitation” after the success of “Fear of Flying,” and skewered her “stunning self-absorption.”
In an advance review of “Fear of Dying,” a critic for Kirkus Reviews said that “spending almost 300 pages with Vanessa is like enduring a trans-Atlantic flight with a seat mate who never stops talking but doesn’t have a whole lot to say.”
Ms. Jong said she had a thicker skin than she did earlier in her career and is more philosophical about negative reviews. “We can’t really control our image in the world,” she said. “But it still hurts if you spend a decade on a book and people don’t like it.”
She has many vocal supporters, among them Susan Cheever; the historical novelist Ken Follett, who said the new novel represented “Erica at her best”; and the novelist Jennifer Weiner, who counts “Fear of Flying” as one of her literary influences.
“ ‘Fear of Flying’ opened a lot of doors and eyes and made people look differently at that nice woman sitting next to them on the train, and I think ‘Fear of Dying’ is going to have the same effect,” Ms. Weiner said.
Ms. Jong also found a fan in one of her comic heroes, Woody Allen, who loved “Fear of Dying” and unexpectedly gave it a blurb.
“I was thinking of his famous quote, I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens, so I thought he should read this,” Ms. Jong said. “The first thing he said when we sent it was, ‘I never blurb anything.’ Then he relented.”