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Review: Fear of Dying proves Erica Jong’s sustained relevancy

Erica Jong attends the American Ballet Theatre's 75th Anniversary Diamond Jubilee Spring Gala at Metropolitan Opera House on Monday, May 18, 2015, in New York.

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Fear of Dying
Erica Jong
St. Martin’s Press

Erica Jong is perhaps best known for coining a phrase that can't be printed in a newspaper. Her 1973 debut novel, Fear of Flying, was an explicit and revelatory look at the female sexuality of its era, depicting a 29-year-old erotic poet as she yearns to indulge unfulfilled fantasies with someone other than her husband. The adventurous Isadora Wing is on the hunt for what Jong famously called the "zipless fuck," described as "absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not 'taking' and the woman is not 'giving.' No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. [It] is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn."

Both the concept and the book hit a cultural nerve at the tail end of the sexual revolution, resonating with a generation of women who felt society had completely overlooked their desires, carnal and otherwise. Meditative and decidedly memoir-like, Fear of Flying went on to sell more than 20 million copies, becoming a free-love cultural touchstone shelved firmly in the canon of second-wave feminism, and lauded by the likes of John Updike and Henry Miller.

Jong was only 31 years old the year Fear of Flying was released, and she went on to publish more than 20 books over four decades – including the book's 1994 non-fiction companion, Fear of Fifty. Now, at the age of 73, she's released a fictional completion of the "trilogy," a book that confronts the still-clinging taboo of older women's sexuality. ("Women are not supposed to have passion at sixty. We were supposed to become grandmothers and retreat into serene sexlessness.")

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It's obvious Fear of Dying is the decidedly wiser bookend to Jong's groundbreaking 1973 novel, less sexy and more thoughtful, and proving Jong's sustained relevancy. The novel continues the author's preoccupation with the complexities of female desire, yet situates them alongside the searing anxiety of death. While Isadora Wing does make an appearance as the whip-smart best friend, Vanessa Wonderman is the book's "best years behind her" protagonist, watching both her parents succumb to inevitable demise while frantically consumed with the idea of her own. Beyond that, Vanessa's got an ailing older husband, a once wayward daughter about to give birth and a beloved sick dog, meaning there are more than enough pressing questions of mortality to go around.

A former actress, Vanessa is the victim of a culture disgusted at the loss of a woman's youth, and from page one we feel the invisibility society has thrust upon her. Despite her love for a husband 15 years her senior ("My husband and I read the obituaries together more than we have sex"), she believes extramarital sex to be the antidote to her decay, posting an invitation on the hookup site (a neat nod to the classic). Vanessa is hoping to tend to her long-ignored passions with a no-strings attached tryst – "I wanted sex to prove I would never die," she says of her wanting, though the results are less than favourable. Thoroughly uncomfortable scenes with potential suitors illuminate some hard truths about human intimacy, and reveal a toxic double standard when it comes to a woman's cultural value.

"Women feel like they have no choice," Vanessa laments. "Age still equals abandonment for women. A man can look like he's a hundred, be impotent and night blind, and still find a younger woman who never got over her daddy. But a woman is lucky to be able to go to the movies or bingo with another old bag."

Fear of Dying is less a novel and more a confessional treatise on the terror of growing old; the inner monologue of our protagonist conveys thoughts on everything from palliative care, to plastic surgery, to circumcision, to canine companions. The plot is as basic as "woman considers sex and death," but the ideas Jong investigates are more complex than the book's seeming simplicity would suggest. It's also no small feat that the author deals so head-on with the idea of dying, and yet still manages to keep the book light and chatty – even comical – at every turn. It often feels as if Jong is simply exploiting a novel format (and Vanessa's voice) to deliver her own wisdom on aging, deliberately crossing a generational divide to tell it like it is.

"I think about how impossible it is to explain to the young what happens when you know you're not immune from death," Vanessa says. "Everything changes. You look at the world differently. When you're young, you have no perspective."

Fear of Dying's conclusion may be predictable, but it's no less poignant as a result. Ultimately, what Vanessa is looking for – that zipless sexual promise that has, decades later, moved online – is not really there. It's not the fantasy of no-strings sex that will provide her with a fountain of youth, but instead a genuine connection to others that will give her the will to face her own mortality. It's perhaps a pat ending, a message that may not offer consolation in the face of our cultural disdain for getting old, but it really is the only one possible. A reader comes out of Fear of Dying much less troubled by the inevitable onslaught of time, and that's an achievement in itself.

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