Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong

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Four stars, read in December 2016.

This was fascinating, though slightly different than I expected. I’d had the impression that the protagonist leaves her marriage and goes through a process of sexual liberation meeting many men—but it’s actually just one man, and that sort of changes the dynamic. It’s also surprisingly heavy on the Freudian psychology of the 1970s, most of which sounds absurd to me now, and a bit dull in the middle when she’s recounting the history of her relationships.

But the way Jong tracks the process of women’s internal liberation—middle class white women, anyway—was poignant for me, frustrating much of the time, but ultimately hopeful. I marked so many passages (using my lovely blades of grass page markers) that my book looks like a little garden. I love the complete frankness of Jong’s narrator, the open—if convoluted—examination of herself. It’s still rare for me to read about sexuality in such an explicit, straightforward way.

And the crazy part of it was that even if you were clever, even if you spent your adolescence reading John Donne and Shaw, even if you studied history or zoology or physics and hoped to spend your life pursuing some difficult and challenging career—you still had a mind full of all the soupy longings that every high-school girl was awash in. It didn’t matter, you see, whether you had an IQ of 170 or an IQ of 70, you were brainwashed all the same.

Silence is the bluntest of blunt instruments. It seems to hammer you into the ground. It drives you deeper and deeper into your own guilt. It makes the voices inside your head accuse you more viciously than any outside voices ever could.

So we got drunk, and in our giggling drunken antics, the despair would get blurred. It would never quite vanish, of course, but it would become easier to bear. Like getting drunk on a plane to ease your fear of flying. You still believe you’re going to die whenever the sound of the engines changes, but you don’t care anymore. You almost like the idea. You imagine yourself gliding down through the flocculent clouds into a blue ocean full of your fondest memories of childhood.

Oh I knew I was making my life into a song-and-dance routine, a production number, a shaggy dog story, a sick joke, a bit. I thought of all the longing, the pain, the letters (sent and unsent), the crying jags, the telephone monologues, the suffering, the rationalizing, the analyzing which had gone into each of these relationships . . . I knew that the way I described them was a betrayal of their complexity, their humanity, their confusion. 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. Even those writers who respect the beautiful anarchy of life and try to get it all into their books, wind up making it seem much more ordered than it ever was and do not, finally, tell the truth.

Sometimes the smell of a cake of soap (or some other homely substance) will suddenly bring back a long-forgotten memory from childhood. And then I will find myself wondering how many other memories are hidden from me in the recesses of my own brain; indeed my own brain will seem to be the last great terra incognita, and I will be filled with wonder at the prospect of someday discovering new worlds there.

When a man says no, it’s no. When a woman says no, it’s yes, or at least maybe. There is even a joke to that effect. And little by little, women begin to believe in this view of themselves. Finally, after centuries of living under the shadow of such assumptions, they no longer know what they want and can never make up their minds about anything. And men, of course, compound the problem by mocking them for their indecisiveness and blaming it on biology, hormones, premenstrual tension.

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