Fear of Dying kicks off with an ad placed on zipless.com, an internet sex site for adulterers: “Happily married woman with extra erotic energy seeks happily married man to share same.” Could this be Isadora Wing again, the Rabelaisian heroine of Jong’s 1973 international bestseller Fear of Flying? Who could forget Isadora’s fantasy of the notorious “zipless fuck” – hot, anonymous, one-time guilt-free sex? The twentysomething Isadora flew free of convention and fear, defied the spectre of the suicidal or timid woman artist, and inspired a generation of women with her chutzpah, talent, intelligence and wit. The book made Jong an overnight celebrity, and moved her from her respectable niche as a little-known young poet to a glamorous life of adoring readers, many marriages and fame as a literary Joan Rivers.
But in Fear of Dying, Jong’s ninth novel, Isadora has retired from her erotic exploits, although she lives on as a wise spiritual guide to Jong’s new narrator, Vanessa Wonderman. A 60-year-old actor pretending to be 50, married to a rich, adoring but impotent man 20 years her senior, a doting grandmother and a world traveller, Vanessa still has a huge appetite for sex, experience, adventure, variety and more sex: the “life force, the fire that goes from loins to navel, navel to heart, heart to brain”. As she ages she misses “the power I had over men”, and she has had an expensive facelift, painful, of course, but worth every twinge. “After all the bruises were gone, I noticed an uptick in passes made at me.” Vanessa is not seeking the creative confidence of Isadora; she just wants to defy time, and “the internet was a sort of fountain of youth, a potion I could drink to let me rejuvenate and reinvent myself”.
When I interviewed Jong 40 years ago, she called Fear of Flying “a declaration of independence”. With its feisty violation of the verbal and sexual taboos of women’s writing, and insistence that female artists should have all the freedom of male artists, “it was a counterphobic book”. Fear of Dying is counterphobic too. Jong has frequently lamented her difficulties in finishing this novel, a decade in the making. In her 2006 memoir Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life, she confessed “I was terrified of writing my next novel … After many false starts, I finally know novel number nine has to be about Isadora weighing in as a woman of a certain age. That fills me with fear of writing.” Jong has published three novels about Isadora, but at the age of 73, she has long outgrown that persona. Always an intellectual, culturally and politically engaged, she has recognised that she needs to shed the burden of her popular creation, and move on to a new century and a new voice.
In Fear of Dying, Jong has indeed overcome her phobias about writing about ageing and death. Drawing on her two memoirs, sometimes very closely, she fictionalises her father’s life and death, and, more ambivalently, her mother’s protracted dying. She gives Vanessa the backstory of her own husband’s aortic aneurysm, her daughter Molly’s rehab at a treatment centre in Minnesota when she was 19, her own drinking and sporadic efforts at sobriety, and her continued quest for freedom and renewal. Less directly, she also grapples with her fear of writing in a smart and serious voice.
Vanessa, it must be said, is not as sympathetic or lovable a narrator as the young Isadora. She is narcissistically obsessed with ageing: “I hate, hate, hate getting older.” Even the word “older” here is a euphemism for “old”. In a “rage against age”, she goes to all the exercise gurus, “anti-ageing specialists”, blasters, scrapers, injectors, acupunturists and hypnotists in New York. With the exception of her old friend Isadora, her adored daughter Glinda and her beloved dog Belinda Barkowitz (the real name of Jong’s late poodle), Vanessa does not like other females. She worships her father, who writes amusingly about himself as King Lear “in geriatric stress”, but she is repelled by her aged mother, “Queen Lear”, with her rheumy eyes and flattened breasts. She is not fond of her squabbling and envious sisters (at a celebration of Fear of Flying at Columbia University in 2008, Jong’s sister Suzanna Mann Daou startled the audience when she stood up to complain of the novel’s “resentment and cruelty to family”).
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