Zip It

Erica Jong’s stunning self-absorption

Attention, Bill Clinton. Erica Jong is waiting for your call. “I can’t get in touch with Bill,” she announces in her most recent memoir. “He has to get in touch with me.” She does everything short of giving her phone number. She agonizes about pleasing him in the sheets (“I wonder if I’m trashy enough”). She reassures him she’s cleared things with her spouse (“My husband is cool about our affair”).

No matter that it’s been three decades since Jong published Fear of Flying, the book that presumably emboldens her to proposition American presidents. It careened to the top of best-seller lists after its publication in 1973, revolutionized the way people thought about women’s erotic desire, provoked translations into two-and-a-half-dozen languages, and turned its thirtysomething author into a celebrity. It also drove her to eternal self-imitation. Each of the seventeen books Erica Jong has written since has been an increasingly desperate postscript to her first novel.

JongFear of Flying itself was a good book. And this even though—or perhaps because—its reputation departs radically from its reality. It is my suspicion that the majority of the 18 million people who bought it didn’t read it, or read only the paragraphs on which its notoriety was based. This means the passage about “zipless fucks” in which Isadora Wing (minutely based, like all of Jong’s narrators, on herself) details her fantasy of elated anonymous sex—sex without strings, preambles, or consequences; sex with a stranger on a train, an itinerant Romeo who comes, sees, conquers, and disappears into the mists of the station. “The zipless fuck was more than a fuck,” intones Isadora. “It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals … Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue.” “And,” she adds abruptly four pages later, “I have never had one.”

But the book’s whole mythology depends on the availability—and ecstasy—of the zipless fuck. It is because of this availability that numbers of women left their husbands in the glory years of Fear of Flying, and that men sent Jong requests for underwear. It was, after all, the middle of the sexual revolution. The birth-control pill had been approved in 1960. By 1966, Masters and Johnson had announced that traditional sexual intercourse was, for half the human race, anticlimactic. The Hite Report confirmed as much a few years later. Many a young woman felt invited—or compelled—to embrace erotic experiment. But with possibility came fear—not least, fear of ignorance. Suddenly everybody wanted to know what they should be doing, and feeling, in bed. The Joy of Sex appeared on coffee tables across the nation. Firsthand accounts of women’s desire were at a premium.

Enter Erica Jong and her zipless fuck. But here’s an irony: Fear of Flying demonstrates the unavailability of the zipless fuck. Far from being an inspirational story (as it is routinely billed) of a woman’s escape from a dead marriage and discovery of erotic pleasure and independence, it’s the tale of a woman who ditches her husband only to find in the arms of a lover first impotence and frustration, then heartbreak and abandonment. The end of the novel has Jong’s protagonist returning ruefully to her spouse: she stalks him around European capitals, begs a receptionist for the key to his hotel room, and admits herself into his bathtub in anticipation of his arrival. As an image of female liberation, it’s hardly up to snuff. The heroine—naked and prone—awaits the forgiveness of her husband. Not flying in the open skies, as the novel’s title (and Isadora’s surname) suggests she might—but waterlogged in the lavatory of a man. (Improbably, Jong herself appears to mistake her novel’s closing scene for a vision of freedom. “I wasn’t going to grovel,” she has Isadora boast as she reclines in Mr. Wing’s steaming bath. No? If not, it could only be because she knows the man she married is sufficiently weak to take her back without any elaborate rituals of contrition.)

Presented by

Cristina Nehring, a regular contributor to The Atlantic, is writing a book about women and love, for HarperCollins.

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