The volume takes us breathlessly, ecstatically, exhaustingly through the demise of her relationship with Miller and beyond. As she recounts several other barn-burning liaisons, including her frustrated (nonphysical) affair with Gore Vidal, Nin reaches for Miller-esque bravado and comes across as sexually liberated, all right—while hoisting herself onto a pedestal, blissfully objectified.
My power for ecstasy and his [Moré again] earthy fire produce this white heat all the poets and all the lovers dream of, this raging fire, heaven and hell.
If you say so, dear. Nin’s portentously lyrical demonstrations of desire, both in the act and in the writing of the act, amount to a performance. How much of the performance is real, and how much is fabricated? Such questions never troubled Nin, but no sex memoirist now can afford to ignore them.
You might mistake Erica Jong for another female writer brandishing her sexuality as an alluring provocation. Fear of Flying, after all, opens with the famous “zipless fuck” sequence, in which the heroine, Isadora Wing, describes her fantasy of a sexual union between two strangers who have absolutely zero expectations of each other. But to reread the book is to discover that Jong wasn’t showboating. Her aim was something far humbler and more important: to get at the slippery, elusive, doubt-ridden I want it—or do I? reality of sex for girls.
Jong’s point of view is intimate and just a little coldly self-assessing—that is, hers is a memoirist’s eye. Yes, Fear of Flying is a novel, which only goes to show what the freedom and relative anonymity of fiction can do: inspire the first great piece of semi-autobiographical sex writing by a woman. (To note that Isadora Wing and Erica Jong have a lot in common is an understatement: husbands, professional status, etc., match up.) Jong’s book was of a piece with feminist consciousness-raising, sharing its faith that telling the truth about sex was a radical act that could set you free. Jong wrote seductively about escape from the narrow confines of traditional marriage. But she wasn’t fooled. Truth and freedom, she knew, were complicated. Liberation wasn’t as easy as deciding to become a wild, lusty animal. Women could, and should, rawr away: they wanted to have sex, wanted it a lot. But for Jong—writing very much for women—lust was prelude. The zipless fuck, the mindless mating, is hard to pull off in reality. That’s what makes it a fantasy.
Jong kept her eye trained on the particulars, messy and even unsexy, without losing sight of sexual desire. In this throwaway passage, Isidora is remembering her early exploits with a high-school boyfriend, which took place right in the family living room:
He would slowly unzip (so as not to snag it?) and with one hand (the other was under my skirt and up my cunt) extract the huge purple thing from between the layers of his shorts, his blue Brooks-Brothers shirttails, and his cold, glittering, metal-zippered fly. Then I would dip one hand into the vase of roses my flower-loving mother always kept on the coffee table, and with a right hand moistened with water and the slime from their stems, I would proceed with my rhythmic jerking off of Steve. How exactly did I do it? Three fingers?
Let me count the ways this scene is excellent. There’s the physicality of the sex act, in all its wonderful, unexpected detail. But there’s also the cold calculation of the girl figuring out how exactly to manage, and there’s her grown-up self trying to recall the precise technique. Not to mention the incessant self-scrutiny—coupled with excitement and a sense of power—that drives the scene. If this were Nin, she and Mr. Brooks Brothers would have traveled to the moon and back by the third sentence. Jong stays firmly planted on the avocado-green couch, Isadora’s brain flying, her hand covered with flower gunk. And she hasn’t forgotten about her mother, either—which doesn’t stop her.