Sunday, October 20, 2013

Life Has No Plot

The zipless fuck is 40 years old.

I'd never have known that except that the Washington Post ran a piece last week about Erica Jong's seminal 1973 book Fear of Flying.

Naturally, I did what any red-blooded woman who'd read the book in college would do. I went to my bookshelves to find my 1983 reprint so I could reread it.

Lest we forget, author John Updike compared it to Catcher in the Rye. Henry Miller said it would make literary history.

But would it hold up four decades later?

I was immediately sucked in by all of it. Jong's prose, the period details, the cultural snapshot of the period when women were coming into their own and even the smart ones were finally feeling like it was okay to enjoy sex for sex's sake.

Remember, this was back in a time when nervous flyers like Jong's heroine Isadora can't wait for the "No smoking" sign to go off on a flight so they could light up. Lots of mentions of women's lib. Money is "bread."

But mainly, I am struck by just how different a culture it was. Sitting in a cafe, Isadora thinks, "Already I was attracting the kind of quizzical glances a woman alone attracts."

What a dreadful time for a woman comfortable with her own company to live, always needing to be mindful of society's constraints. No, thank you.

I'd completely forgotten what the story was about and avidly followed Isadora as she abandoned her second husband at a convention in Vienna to take off for a summer tooling around Europe in a convertible with a man she's wildly attracted to.

With days spent doing nothing more than driving, drinking beer and lounging at swimming pools, Isadora worries about their relationship.

She: Am I a bore? Do I repeat myself?
He: Yes, but I like being bored by you. It's more amusing than being amused by someone else.
She: I like the flow of conversation when we're together. I never worry about making an impression on you. I tell you what I think.
He: We talk well. Without lumps and bumps. You're open. You contradict yourself all the time, but I rather like that. It's human.

What struck me about that passage was not just how well it illustrates a desirable level of communication between two lovers, but how timeless the goal of finding someone with whom you feel that comfortable with is.

Although I don't recall, I feel certain Isadora's summer of self-discovery resonated far differently with me from my first reading to this most recent one.

The existentialist questions she asks of herself as she tries to figure out who and what she wants and how she wants to define herself and her life going forward were what had stayed in my head all these years and rereading it after decades of life experience confirmed those things as the essence of the book.

As for the zipless fuck ("The man is not taking and the woman is not giving...The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is") that became a buzzword for guilt-free, nameless sex enjoyed between strangers, when Isadora finally gets the chance for it late in the book, she finds she doesn't want it.

A big part of what impressed me this time was Jong's wisdom for one so young when she wrote this book back in the dark ages of the '70s.

Maybe marriages are best in middle age. When all the nonsense falls away and you realize you have to love one another because you're going to die anyway.

I'm quite sure I didn't know that at 29, so how did she?

Because she's Erica Jong and she was far enough ahead of the liberated literary curve to give us some life lessons couched in a road trip story with lots of sex, told for a change from the smart girl's point of view.

A brilliant zipless mind fuck, then and now.


  1. I always thought a "zipless anything" was an interesting premise...however not to sound like a cliche' no matter how much things have changed..and they have greatly...many things just stay the same.


  2. I read Fear of Flying after a devastating breakup in 2008 and was COMPELLED to write to Erica Jong. I found her email address and sent a silly message to her. She wrote me back within 2 hours:


    I'm thrilled by your letter.

    I wrote "that book" (as people call it) throughout my twenties--and when it was acquired by Holt in 1970, I was a baby (and a babe). I had no idea what I'd wrought.

    The reactions were ecstatic, mean, unprintable, hateful, horrid and wonderful. The "official" lit'ry types called me "a mammoth pudenda" (Paul Theroux in the New Statesman), but Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer fame loved it and so did John Updike in the New Yorker. Thus my first novel (third book) was SAVED!

    And here we are in 2008 & you have just found it at a time in your life you need it. The wonder of books!

    So--read it and remember that men are compelling but another one always comes along (like a bus).

    Remember who you are! Fantastic, individual, beautiful inside and out. If one creep doesn't get it, a wise man
    will come along who does.

    I've had 4 marriages and my 4th husband is my soulmate. We are now married 19 years--a record for us both.

    The others were just warm-ups.

    BE WELL!


  3. Jillian, Props to you for even thinking to wrote to EJ after reading FoF!

    Her letter is beyond fabulous and her statement, "If one creep doesn't get it, a wise man will come along who does" is the Cliffs Notes version of what every woman of a certain age could tell you. No matter how many marriages/relationships you need to have to warm up, when you meet the love of your life, you'll know it.

    Thanks many times over for sharing EJ's letter and for reading my blog!