Culture  /  Book Review

‘Fear of Flying’ Is 50. What Happened to Its Dream of Freedom Through Sex?

With its feminist take on sexual pleasure, Erica Jong’s novel caused a sensation in 1973. But the revolution Jong promoted never came to pass.

The Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe, legalizing abortion, in January 1973, as Jong worked through page proofs. Then, that summer, the court delivered a set of opinions that made it easier to prosecute works deemed obscene. An era of cultural libertinism, symbolized by the runaway success of the hard-core film “Deep Throat,” seemed to be ending.

Jong knew she had written a daringly explicit book. The rulings “terrify me,” she told the poet Adrienne Rich, imagining “‘Our Bodies Ourselves’ confiscated.” Yet when a friend teased her about posing as “a sex object” for her author photo, Jong pushed back: “After centuries of patriarchal oppression, all’s fair in love and book publishing.”

Like many first novels, “Fear of Flying” is both ambitious and uneven. “I wanted to write about the whole world,” Isadora insists: to use a telescope as well as a speculum. She feels little affinity with history’s “uncertain heroines” and their “severe, suicidal, strange” tales. “Where was the female Chaucer?” Isadora goes on a pilgrimage to find her.

Isadora’s reach exceeds her grasp. Her desire to write the whole world notwithstanding, “Fear of Flying” is a sexual self-portrait, kin to the self-examinations women’s groups undertook on living room floors, or to “The Dinner Party, the installation of sculpted vulvas on ceramic plates that the artist Judy Chicago was working on in 1973. It is also a road novel, a hedonist-feminist Kerouac. Isadora flees her husband, and his psychoanalytic conference in Vienna, to race through Europe with a manifestly deficient paramour, Adrian Goodlove, in pursuit of a “platonic ideal” she calls “the zipless fuck”: sex without past or future.

A proud feminist, Isadora has trouble squaring her movement principles with her “unappeasable hunger for male bodies.” Six Freudian analysts have treated her, yet she remains a mystery to herself. She has not given up on the marriage plot but can’t conquer the “other longings which … marriage did nothing much to appease”: “the restlessness, the hunger, … the longing to be filled up,” to be penetrated “through every hole.” Jong has ditched her twin set and pearls.