As one whose usual reaction to thinking about my youth from old age is: “What was I thinking of?” it’s a challenge to read Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying (Canongate, London), her new novel exalting the glories of youth (for that read sex) over the horrors of old age.
To prepare myself I had to go back to Erica Jong’s famous first novel about female sexuality, Fear of Flying, published in 1973, when Jong was 31, and which has pursued her ever since, despite her many other novels and books of poetry. The reason for that pursuit is that she tapped right into the zeitgeist of the 70s when women were questioning that every choice available to them should mean (in Jong’s words) “pain and renunciation”. Is it a mistake to go back to the trendy novels that were important to you in your youth? When you longed for someone to tell you how to live or how to go about discovering that for yourself? Perhaps if I’d paid more attention in my own life to the world of possibilities Jong opened up in FOF, I would be looking back more indulgently on my 1970s self. But the possibilities open to a well-off, educated, beautiful Jewish girl who is Jong’s heroine, Isadora Wing, and who is commute-flying between New York and the west coast of the US with a bunch of psychiatrists of various stripe, bore no comparison with mine or with any woman’s I knew at that time. So we read with awe of Isadora’s determination to be as able as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath to express her sensuality and to pursue her own ideal of the “zipless erotic encounter” (according to the censored jacket of my 1974 “overseas” edition): actually, the “zipless fuck”, Isadora’s famous term for sex without awkwardness, responsibilities or repercussions. The ZF was not the only reason that the novel was read intently. The writing was classy, literary, witty and fun. Now, more than 40 years and a book called Fear of Fifty later, Jong has in Fear of Dying again picked up on the spirit of the times: the Baby Boomer generation’s fear of old age and death. Could she bring her own flair for life to writing about ageing? That was the tough call. Death is one thing, describing sexuality at 60-plus is another. But Jong seems pretty fearless. Her new heroine, Vanessa, is 60 (13 years younger than Jong) and passes for 50 after cosmetic surgery. She faces the rapid decline and death of both her parents (in their 90s), her newish, very rich husband’s heart attack and loss of interest in sex (they “read the obits together more often than they had sex”), her adored daughter’s drug rehab and pregnancy, and even the death of her dog, Belinda Barkawitz. Isadora Wing reappears in FOD (now a stylish widow and Vanessa’s ideal), annoyed that her ZF description has been ripped off by an internet sex site: Zipless.com. Vanessa signs up for Zipless for the sex wants and which she believes will help her endure the new trials of her life. Her advertisement begins, “Happily married woman with extra erotic energy…” It is not unlikely that many Baby Boomers are finding an equivalent of Zipless.com, but one hopes with more caution than Vanessa. So Fear of Dying is not a self-help book. Just when you might be fed up with Vanessa’s sexual pursuits, description of patrimony fights (sometimes funny: her father sees himself as King Lear “under geriatric stress”) and, always, her guilt, her observations of Death All Around her become shot through with her wicked perceptions and literary allusions. “The descent of our last end – how much nearer we are to it than (James) Joyce was. He lived in a world without nukes, without climate change – and still he suffered over his daughter. No human life passes without disappointment and suffering. No children without trouble. He invented a new language to tell of his troubles. Don’t we all wish we could?” She makes interesting points about not using the internet as a fountain of youth. Vanessa asks Isadora if she’s stopped believing in ziplessness. “Absolutely,” Isadora says. “It works in fantasy, not in reality. In reality you have to trust someone to have great sex, and how can you trust what you read on the Internet?” Jong quotes David Grossman (“I touch on grief and loss like one touching electricity with his bare hands”), Aldous Huxley, Annie Lennox, Anthony Burgess… The novel has its irritations, but it has a rich texture. And perhaps one leaves it with a different view of our fate, and what it means to loved people left behind, who will face up to their own demise before very long. Ageing, Vanessa understands, is when you learn you are not immune from death, when time is not on your side. The novel ends with a trip to India, which seems a pretty good idea. @mollyfisher4