“I’m a grown-up,” insists Vanessa Wonderman, the 60-year-old protagonist of Erica Jong’s ninth novel. “I’m nearly an orphan.” The line captures not only Vanessa’s own self-confessed immaturity, and her awed trepidation about a world not containing her beloved parents, but also a sense that dawns on many of us as we age: that there is no magic key to a kingdom called adulthood in which decisions make sense and uncertainties dissolve; that we will always feel little inside.
Vanessa is both a character – a well-known actress and screenwriter attempting to buoy up a happy but sexually inert marriage with online dating – separate from Erica Jong and a mouthpiece for Jong’s own bouncy observations about loss, sex, feminism, parent- and grandparenthood, fame and romance. The novel also features, as Vanessa’s best friend, Jong’s most famous fictional avatar, Isadora Wing, protagonist of her 1973 bestseller and cause célèbre Fear of Flying. The website on which Vanessa seeks extra-marital encounters is called Zipless, in tribute to Isadora’s historic pursuit of the effortless, uncomplicated, no-strings-attached “zipless fuck”.
As if that wasn’t enough of herself to be going on with, Jong also has her narrator include the name “Erica” in a list of influential feminists to whom contemporary women owe aspects of their freedom. So this is the novel as hall of mirrors: a piece of literary self-analysis and celebrity self-mythologisation, as well as a first-person fiction about a woman facing old age and parental decline. Interestingly, however, if Fear of Flying is an introspective, melancholy and rather good novel that has the misplaced reputation of being first and foremost naughty and outrageous, Fear of Dying skews the other way. Despite the gloomy title and the onerous subject matter, it is relentlessly upbeat, charged with silliness and world-weary black humour, rather than the self-doubt and sexual disappointment that characterise Jong’s best-known work.
The writing in Fear of Dying has a haphazard, chaotic quality, jumping from a straight narrative about late-life sex and marriage into surreal dream sequences, mini-essays and scraps of the character’s own literary efforts, and from a tender, solemn tone to one of ribald joshing. Jong can be both fey and obvious at times (“How did the word ‘feminist’ get to be an insult?”; “The human heart is a dark, dark forest”; “War has always been with us – and somehow we survive”), and her attempts at taboo-busting humour don’t always come off, as when she muses crudely on circumcision (“You think female circumcision is bad? … At least women have other things to think about than their pussies… Men think about their pricks for the rest of their lives.”).
Disappointingly for those Fear of Flying fans who still feel a powerful connection to Isadora Wing, she resurfaces here without much definition. Exchanges between her and Vanessa feel like Jong talking to and about herself. If Fear of Flying was, in part, effective and moving because of the unstinting frankness with which Jong regarded her fictional self, the praise she heaps on Isadora here (“She has gone from being a wild girl to a wise woman… She has become the most spiritual woman I know”) feels trite and narcissistic. Maybe Jong feels inclined to reclaim her character from being unjustly portrayed as a literary bimbo, but readers could have been allowed to do that for themselves without such bossy direction of their feelings; and as a feminist gesture it’s undermined somewhat by the fact that all the other women Vanessa encounters are awful vapid bores.
Also a bit distasteful is the focus upon terribly rich people and their terribly rich problems. “More, more, more is a disease,” declares Vanessa; and yet there’s a whole chapter about how terrible it is having to have a facelift. There are thousand-dollar shoes and hundred-million dollar houses. There is a fight between sisters over an inheritance of priceless pearls that appear to have been stolen by “a caregiver, a nurse, a cook”. (Vanessa professes herself secretly thrilled that her sister won’t get the pearls, because “no one would”, and it’s noticeable that in this world, to be a caregiver, a nurse or a cook is indeed to be no one.) These sisters’ childhoods, Vanessa claims, were scarred by their parents simply being too fabulous – and yes, that is a genuine drawback in life, OK? “It seemed we’d never live as glamorously as they,” muses Vanessa of her party-going folks. “We weren’t starving or drinking polluted water, but we were stuck in a kind of emotional poverty all the same.”
While it is possible this is intended to be read with a bit of irony, the book doesn’t really offer a meaningful counter to the notion that growing up too rich and glamorous is a misfortune equivalent to actual starvation, and its politics can’t help but feel rather limited and naïve as a result.
Many a sticking point, then; and nothing like the same questing cleverness and observational acuity that helped to distinguish Fear of Flying, which was a book as much about psychiatry, unhappy marriage, impotence and German history as it was about sexual bliss, of which its protagonist actually experiences very little. Despite its problems, however, the positive aspects of Fear of Dying do in the end pull it together into something likable. Jong does write bravely and boldly about parental loss, about sex in marriage, and about almost giving up on something and then deciding not to.
If the material assembled here (and it does feel like a patchwork of extant writings loosely strung together, rather than a self-contained narrative) wasn’t so patchy, and the worldview less rarefied, and the much-vaunted central female friendship had more to offer the reader, we might be flying high once again. As it is, this is a cheery entertainment for those women who feel excluded on grounds of age from most writing about sex and relationships; a potential comfort for those in the midst of familial sickness and bereavement and a fun provocation for anyone who finds current feminism a bit too preoccupied with victimhood and limitations.
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