Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fear of being honest

When Erica Jong's Fear of Flying appeared on David Foster Wallace's list of top ten books a few years ago, along with several other books of suspect reputation, nobody knew if it was meant to be taken seriously, or whether it was some ironic commentary on the nature of such lists, or what.

It's with this in mind that I picked up Fear of Flying for myself last week, after some blog conversation or other about the subject matter Jong deals with, or the tone with which she deals with it, or something. (And it seemed like the perfect break from that ~600-page experimental French novel I'm reading.)

First, let me say: It's not at all what I expected it to be. It's not smutty. It's not just so much overwrought emotion and pop psychology. It's not chick lit. It's not the kind of book to be embarassed about being seen reading it in public.

What it is is an immensely compelling read.

There's a hint of Sex and the City about it, only rawer and without the shoes. Loads of literary allusions too.

Henry Miller compared it to his own Tropic of Cancer. I think it's bigger and better than that. "Because sex is all in the head." So we have to get inside Isadora's head to appreciate how sex fits into her life. And to get inside her head means to come to terms with her family and her Jewishness and her education and her string of boyfriends; her personal history and her cultural history; everything that goes on in her head. It's more than just about a zipless fuck.

Now, I'm not Jewish, this isn't the 1960s, and I've never been in therapy (though maybe I should give it a try?), never married (technically) or divorced, but I found a lot to relate to. I am a woman, after all, and (the patriarchal) society still has expectations regarding how we should look and act. I spent a good portion of my weekend being angry at men, but this novel shouldn't be dismissed as some nutcase feminist diatribe either.

What it is is intensely honest. And this is why I can imagine that David Foster Wallace listed this novel among his top ten in earnest. It is completely genuine. Isadora is no goddamn phony. I don't know how you can tell, there are no specific criteria to check off; it's something you just know, you feel it in your gut.

"I'm the only man you've ever met you can't categorize," he said triumphantly. And then he waited for me to categorize the others. And I obliged. 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, each of the relationdinghies, each of these relationliners. 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. Because no writer can ever tell the truth about life, namely that it is much more interesting than any book. And no writer can tell the truth about people — which is that they are much more interesting than any characters.

It's hard to imagine this book being scandalous when it was first published in 1973. Us 21st-century dwellers, so little phases us, we've seen it all before. Almost 40 years, but really not that much has changed for women. There are things in this novel you don't discuss in polite company; they are difficult to discuss in loving relationships. It comes as a great relief to know that I'm not alone, whether it's regarding sex or body image or motherhood (and I mean in life in general, outside this novel), and thank goodness women talk more freely now and we have the internet, you've come a long way baby, but it's still impossible to get inside someone else's head, it's what makes us all feel so lonely.

Toward the end, I must admit I found the narrator's voice a bit tiresome. The story dragged on a bit, but I do find myself wondering how Isadora's life turned out and I may look up the sequels.

If you're a woman and you ever think about sex or relationships, or if you're a man looking for some idea regarding what women might actually want, then I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. Maybe you won't get as much out of it as I did, but I think it's worth something, if only as historical artifact.

Reading guide.


Bybee said...

How To Save Your Own Life is a good sequel with easily recognizable portraits of famous writers. It's also got that touseled and grubby 70s feel to it, especially when Isadora goes jetting out to LA a lot because her book is being optioned for a movie. I wasn't as impressed with Parachutes & Kisses -- too much time had gone by and Isadora had changed radically... much more than from the first to second book.

I remember I gave this book to a friend (we were around 18) for Christmas. She got mad because she thought I gave her a 'dirty book' and she immediately fed it to the cheery Christmas fire. Game over.

Anonymous said...

Intensely honest, yes. I remember this novel hidden on my mother's shelves when I was young, and waiting for the day when I would 'be able' to read it. I haven't in many, many years, but I so clearly remember the sensuality of her peeling the avocado scene...maybe it sticks out more clearly in my mind than any one else's. But back to her honesty; I think that was one of the things about this book that was so shocking at it's time: personal things seemed to be hidden under "politeness" which kept us from "realness" in many ways.

Isabella K said...

One person's dirty book is another person's kindling, I guess. Thanks for the rundown, Bybee — I'm not going to go out my way for the sequels, but you never know if the mood will strike..

Funny, dolcebellezza, I don't think of this book as sensual at all. (I totally missed the avocado.) You're quite right it was shocking not only for what was being said but also for how it was said.

Stefanie said...

I'm ashamed to say I have not read this book but my husband has. He loved it and has read several other of Jong's books including her poetry.