Book review: ‘Fear of flying’ by Erica Jong (NSFW)

Are you really going to review a 37 year old novel? Yes, shut up. 

This novel is a fucking triumph. It takes a good book to entertain you, a great book to move you, and a special one to show you a truth, either a personal or universal one. The impact it has had on me has already been profound. 

‘Fear of flying’ was considered a highly controversial book when it appeared on the literary scene in 1973 – mostly due to the explicit and honest descriptions of Isadora’s quest for sex outside her marriage. Coining the term the “zipless fuck”, she shone a light on women’s desires at a time when femininity and the idea of family was more restricted and suffocating. Some even feel that this novel was partly responsible for the development of second-wave feminism, so important was its cultural significance. 

But anyone who focused on simply the sexual exploits of the protagonist misses the point. The quest, in essence, is not for an extra-marital affair, but an understanding of who she is. Used to a life of deep psychological introspection and analysis (being married to a psychoanalyst), she still can’t define herself, her husband, her lover, her parents or her experience growing up. And over time it becomes apparent that she is trying to reconcile who she actually is with her idea of women – a notion constructed entirely from the male gaze.

Without the guidance of her mother and no close female friends to share her thoughts with, Isadora’s understanding of womanhood has come only from the content she consumed – literature – all characters which were (either carefully or ignorantly) written by men. Erica says it best: “Throughout all of history, books were written with sperm, not menstrual blood. Until I was twenty-one, I measured my orgasms against Lady Chatterley’s and wondered what was wrong with me.”

Thank Jebus that young women have many more types of content to consume now (giving girls the opportunity to at least have their voices heard without being censored and shaped by Hollywood or the old boys club of critical literature). “Growing up female in America. What a liability! You grew up with your ears full of cosmetic ads, love songs, advice columns…” 

I myself did the majority of my growing up at a time before the internet (‘91 baby), when women still only existed on screen to serve a plot purpose or to lust after. I don’t remember seeing any films or reading any books (besides the escapism offered by vanilla Enid Blyton) with female main characters who were three dimensional – and as for female directors or writers of the content? Pfft. And as for us GAYS getting screen time? No way. 

I’m ashamed to say that until this age, I hadn’t really gone looking for better and more honest representations of women for myself in literature or film, because I – didn’t really realise they existed? I myself don’t fit any of the tropes of women as they’re presented in modern culture: the Cool Girl, the Femme Fatale, the Dumb Blonde, the Mean Girl, the Weird Girl, the Smart Girl, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the Crazy Woman, the Tough Girl, the Nice Girl etc. (newly obsessed with The Take YouTube channel which explores each of these in detail), and I figured that I was the anomaly. That I was the broken one. And now, ‘Fear of flying’ has shown me that we – real women – are not the ones that are broken. It shines a light on how impossible it can feel to be a woman, and on how biased and constructed our points of reference against which to measure ourselves have been since we were children. As D. H. Lawrence says: “The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women.”

Isadora needs to come to terms with all of this – the reality of marriage, her perceived role in society, of her hunger for men balanced against her need for freedom and autonomy – before she can be happy. 

Anyway, I’m diverging from the review itself. There is so much else in this novel which is worth talking about, and most notably for me, the way it is written. This first person voice is so convincing that, for years, readers were convinced this was Erica’s autobiography in a flimsy disguise. The levels to which she plumbs Isadora’s psychological depth makes the character fully three-dimensional, and her wicked humor gives us a reason to love her. This is a very conscious choice, as she muses herself: “Everything human was imperfect and ultimately absurd. What did I believe in then? In humor. In laughing at systems, at people, at one’s self. In laughing even at one’s own need to laugh all the time. In seeing life as contradictory, many-sided, various, funny, tragic, and with moments of outrageous beauty.”

Isadora is also a poet and writer who struggles to dedicate attention to her work because of the guilt that society heaps upon her as a woman. Her family place her under immense pressure to have children, despite the fact she is happily childfree and “What I really wanted was to give birth to myself – the little girl I might have been in a different family, a different world.” 

Throughout the novel, Isadora deals with mental health issues, issues of race (and violent feelings towards Germany as a Jew), issues with her mother and, of course, with her desire for men and sex as she fears, for a great deal of the book, being alone. At the time, “a woman is always presumed to be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice,” which makes her crave stability while seeking hedonism. 

Another incredibly realistic and comforting trait of Isadora’s is that she is a mess of contradictions and about-turns, as are we all. Even in the midst of an anxiety attack, she tries to rationalize her emotions to pull herself out, and has a fascinating conversation between ME and ME where she is both teacher and student.

One of my absolute favorite paragraphs is a neat summary of her ex-husband’s condition, as described by different people. It’s clever, and playful: “But when he finally flipped his cookies (as we politely said in our immediate family) or showed symptoms of schizophrenia (as one of his many psychiatrists put it) or woke up to the real meaning of his life (as he put it) or had a nervous breakdown (as his Ph.D. thesis adviser put it) or became-exhausted-as-a-result-of-being-married-to-that-Jewish-princess-from-New-York (as his parents put it)…”

There are also a few other little delightful phrases, “I fell in love with Bennett partly because he had the cleanest balls I’d ever tasted”, “My heart had catapulted up into my nose”, “The pipes fret like old men gargling”, and “Colder than a witch’s tit” being some of my particular favorites. In truth though, I have saved over 2000 words worth of quotes from this book, because I love the language and the truth so much. I will include my highlighted notes below, just to share. 

In one of Sylvia Plath’s last poems (a female writer to look up to, but also one whose suicide served as a warning for daring to be different), she says: “Is there no way out of the mind?” While Erica expertly weaves together the internal monologue of her character, and the action of the plot – I am just so glad to have been given this peek into Isadora’s flawed and unreliable mind. It makes me feel a lot better about my own.

Read this book immediately, because I promise that if you come to it in twenty years time, you’ll regret every day you didn’t.


Some of my highlighted quotes from the book (brace yourself):

  • All women writers in English stand on the backs of two Marys, whether we know it more not. 
  • Don’t be afraid of mistakes. Everyone makes them. Don’t be afraid of risk. It teaches us more than safety. 
  • OK, let’s put the “mutilated genital” question aside. It’s a dead horse, anyway. 
  • Fucking him turned as bland as Velveeta cheese: filling, fattening even, but no thrill to the taste buds. 
  • The thump in the gut, the thump in the cunt, the longing to be filled up, to be fucked through every hole
  • Growing up female in America. What a liability! You grew up with your ears full of cosmetic ads, love songs, advice columns….
  • [marriage] to discover, in short, whether you were still whole after so many years of being half of something (like the back two legs of a horse outfit on the vaudeville stage).
  • Itches for sex and itchy for the life of a recluse. I knew my itches were contradictory
  • But a woman is always presumed to be alone as a result of abandonment, not choice. 
  • [zipless fuck] Incident has all the swift compression of a dream and is seemingly free of all remorse and guilt […] because there is no rationalizing.
  • Don’t you see that men have always defined femininity as a means of keeping women in line?
  • I looked at their lumpy legs and lumpy asses. I hated them.
  • ‘The History of the world through Toilets’ — not keen on that
  • A stiff prick, Freud said, assuming that their obsession was our obsession. (men’s obsession to women’s obsession)
  • Throughout all of history, books were written with sperm, not menstrual blood. Until I was twenty-one, I measured my orgasms against Lady Chatterley’s and wondered what was wrong with me. 
  • Phallocentric. The trouble with men and the trouble with women. 
  • My underpants were wet enough to mop the streets of Vienna. 
  • I fell in love with Bennett partly because he had the cleanest balls I’d ever tasted. 
  • Each one an antidote to the one that went before. Each one a reaction, an about-face, a rebound. 
  • But when he finally flipped his cookies (as we politely said in our immediate family) or showed symptoms of schizophrenia (as one of his many psychiatrists put it) or woke up to the real meaning of his life (as he put it) or had a nervous breakdown (as his Ph.D. thesis adviser put it) or became-exhausted-as-a-result-of-being-married-to-that-Jewish-princess-from-New-York (as his parents put it)
  • Sex is all in the head
  • [dad] From time to time he painted over her canvases
  • All our unhappiness was strung along the same (rapid tarnishing) gold chain.
  • A patriarchal rationalization, the age-old rationalization of women seething with talent and ambition who keep getting knocked up. 
  • It took me years to learn to sit at my desk for more than two minutes at a time, to put up with the solitude and the terror of failure, and the godawful silence and the white paper. And now that I can take it … now that I can finally do it … I’m really raring to go. I don’t want anything to interfere right now.
  • At Christmas reunions, when the whole family regrouped at my parent’s apartment, Adam looked like the sole Aryan in a playground of Third World children.
  • Lots of great stuff about being childfree, not wanting children
  • What I really wanted was to give birth to myself – the little girl I might have been in a different family, a different world.
  • As if ageing was, above all, rigidity. The setting of the face into pre-arranged patterns; a faint foreshadowing of the rigidity…
  • The loneliness of writing terrified me. I looked for every excuse to escape. I had no sense of myself as a writer and no faith in my ability to write. 
  • And yet despite the obvious fact that I was obsessed with writing […] I didn’t really believe in the seriousness of my commitment at all.
  • The wives buy to fill up their empty lives
  • But they were more than tales and I was not writing. At times I thought I was going mad. 
  • I imagined being wounded and rolling into the pit with the twitching bodies and having dirt shoveled over me [panic of being a Jew]
  • Imagining that my soul was slipping out of my body and that I was possessed by the soul of someone who had died in my place [Jews during extermination]
  • It was interesting to see what the censor had thought to censor.
  • I asked for truth above beauty, History above beauty, and honesty above all. 
  • “All I am saying is that most people are not heroes and most people are not honest. I don’t say I’m good or admirable. All I am saying is that I am like most people.” [about not helping against Nazis]
  • I refused to let myself write about what really moved me. [violent feelings about Germany, sexual feelings etc.]
  • Even without fascism, I had pasted imaginary oak-tag patches over certain areas of my life and steadfastly refused to look at them.
  • Unless I could produce proof of my own honesty in writing, what right had I to rage in his dishonesty?
  • It’s no longer just a question of creaming in my pants – I’m dissolving.
  • There didn’t seem to be any way to get the best of both exuberance and stability into your life. 
  • My heart had catapulted up into my nose.
  • Though I’ve no doubt that being single is just as lonely for a man, it doesn’t have the added extra of being downright dangerous, and it doesn’t automatically imply poverty and the unquestioned status of a social pariah.
  • Not: when did it all go wrong? But: when was it ever right?
  • I go into states where I notice nothing about the landscape except the male inhabitants and which organs of mine (heart, stomach, nipples, cunt) they cause to palpitate.
  • “Keeping your fucking eyes on the road,” I said, delighted. 
  • We’re programmed for suffering, not joy. The masochism is built in at a very early age. 
  • Men are basically terrified of women. Some secretly, some openly. What could be more poignant than a liberated woman eye to eye with a limp prick?
  • The female had a wonderful all-weather cunt. Neither storm nor sleet nor dark of night could faze it. 
  • Severe, suicidal, strange. Where was the female Chaucer? One lusty lady who had juice and joy and love and talent too?
  • Almost all the women we admired most were spinsters or suicides. Was that where it all lead?
  • To help us along we create little fictions, highly subtle and individual scenarios which clarify and shape our experience. The remembered event becomes a fiction, a structure made to accommodate certain feelings. 
  • [imagining the vagina walls] The inner cave feels purple. Royal purple. As if the blood down there were blue.
  • The pipes fret like old men gargling. 
  • And his blame drove me away. But I was afraid to go away. I stayed and grew more secret. I turned more to my fantasies and my writing. 
  • Why should he be alive when they were dead? So he made his life resemble death. And his death was my death too. I learned to keep myself alive by writing. 
  • I was learning how to go down into myself and salvage bits and pieces of the past. I was learning how to sneak up on the unconscious and how to catch my seemingly random thoughts and fantasies. 
  • Gradually I began to realize that none of the subjects I wrote poems about engaged my deepest feelings, that there was a great chasm between what I cared about and what I wrote about. Why? What was I afraid of? Myself, most of all, it seems. 
  • What terrified me was the possibility of finding a poem or story or article by someone I knew. 
  • Everything human was imperfect and ultimately absurd. What did I believe in then? In humor. In laughing at systems, at people, at one’s self. In laughing even at one’s own need to laugh all the time. In seeing life as contradictory, many-sided, various, funny, tragic, and with moments of outrageous beauty.
  • If I lost him, I wouldn’t be able to remember my own name. 
  • Women are their own worst enemies. And guilt is the main weapon of self-torture. 
  • “You contradict yourself all the time, but I rather like that. It’s human.”
  • But he’s too perfect. He won’t commit himself to a statement unless he’s sure it’s definitive. You can’t live that way – trying to be definitive all the time – death’s definitive.
  • You say love – but you mean security. Well, there’s no such thing as security. 
  • [mother] I can hardly see her […] The umbilical cord which connects us has never been cut so it has sickened and rotted and turned black. 
  • She would rather look weird and ugly than common and pretty. 
  • There is nothing fiercer than a failed artist. The energy remains, but having no outlet, it implodes in a great black fart of rate which smokes up all the inner windows of the soul. Horrible
  • And yet – I also have another mother. 
  • Surely no girl could have a more devoted mother
  • Basically, I think, I was furious with my mother for not teaching me how to be a woman, for not teaching me how to make peace between the raging hunger in my cunt and the hunger in my head. 
  • So I learned about women from men. I saw them through the eyes of male writers. Of course, I didn’t think of them as male writers. I thought of them as writers, as authorities, as gods who knew and were to be trusted completely. 
  • What I learned from her I learned by example, not exhortation. 
  • Any place where some genius had been born, lived, worked, ate, farted, spilled his seed, loved, or died – was sacred to me. 
  • The wonder of everyday life fascinates me even more than the wonder of great shrines and temples. 
  • The very ordinariness of his needs, comforted me and made me feel hopeful.
  • Nobody (as Henry Miller says) can tell the absolute truth; and even our most seemingly autobiographical revelations were partly fabrications
  • The idea of the future is our greatest entertainment, amusement, and time-killer
  • I am secretly in love with death
  • Surely you don’t suppose I’m telling the literal truth here either?
  • Life has no plot. It is far more interesting than anything you can say about it because language, by its very nature, orders things and life really has no order. 
  • I’ve always set a high value on words and have often made the mistake of believing in words far more than in actions. 
  • Am I making him sound repulsive?
  • Colder than a witch’s tit (Brian’s expression)
  • Brian and I had been through a nightmare together, and now it turned out that we had been through nothing together.
  • And I will find myself wondering how many other memories are hidden from me in the recesses of my own brain.
  • My writing is the submarine or spaceship which takes me to the unknown worlds within my head. 
  • Stand in the mist and cry, thinking of myself standing in the mist and crying. 
  • The worst thing about being female is the hiddenness of your own body. You spend your whole adolescence arched over backward in the bathroom mirror, trying to see up your own cunt.
  • Back and forth over the net of my own ambivalence.
  • So what do I do? I laugh. 
  • Why doesn’t my knowing ever change anything?
  • Learning how to endure your own existence. 
  • Astigmatism of the mind’s eye. 
  • I have that strange sense of invulnerability which alcohol gives and I feel that I am living in the midst of a romantic movie. 
  • I actually used to be afraid they’d be insulted and take terrible revenge unless I remained rooted to my seat. [on male assault]
  • Then why did it make me feel so hunted?
  • I was conscious of wanting to cry passionately and without restraint, of wanting to weep a whole ocean of tears and drown. But even my tears were blocked. 
  • “Is there no way out of the mind?” Sylvia Plath asked in one of her desperate last poems. 
  • You want contradictory things [she has a conversation between ME and ME. Interesting literary style]
  • Now I think it’s braver to die old. 
  • Hopefully, I cannot reason myself out of this panic. 
  • Why was it I could never decide on what color my eyes were?
  • Somewhere in an article on body image I had read that at times of stress-or ecstasy-we lose the boundaries of our bodies. 
  • The calories in just one good-size spurt were enough to get her thrown out of Weight Watchers forever [spunk]
  • Was it possible that I was really making myself laugh? “Ho ho ho,” I said to my naked self. 
  • You did not have to apologize for wanting to own your own soul. Your soul belonged to you – for better or worse. 
  • It was easy enough to kill yourself in a fit of despair. It was easy enough to play the martyr. It was harder to do nothing. To endure your life. To wait. I slept. 
  • The real trouble about women is that they must always go on trying to adapt themselves to men’s theories of women – D.H.Lawrence.
  • I awakened at noon to find the blood welling up between my legs. 
  • If we haven’t the power to complete ourselves, the search for love becomes a search for self-annihilation; and then we try to convince ourselves that self-annihilation is love. 
  • At least I had a life-long commitment, a calling, a guiding passion. It was certainly more than most people had. 

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