Erica Jong’s ‘Fear of Dying’ Defies the Sunset of Sex

8 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Fear Of Dying’ Asks: Can You Go Zipless At 60?.

The two-word phrase, immortalized in her 1973 best-selling novel, “Fear of Flying,” which has sold more than 27 million copies, entered the cultural lexicon as a shorthand for casual, consequence-free sex. Erica Jong’s new book has echoes of her most famous novel, 1973’s Fear of Flying — which invited women to be as avid for sex and as delighted with it as men are. The new book is called Fear of Dying (small spoiler alert: Everyone does not end up dead at the end), and Jong tells NPR’s Linda Wertheimer that the book was originally called Happily Married Woman, and it was about a happily married woman whose husband is much older, and not well — so the subtitle was Fear of Dying. “When I turned it in to my publisher, they said, ‘That is the title of the book.’ It was not my working title.

Jong into a feminist heroine of sorts and avatar of female sexual liberation, and helped propel and define her career. “People so misinterpreted ‘zipless,’ ” Ms. Jong’s new character, a grandmother in her 60s, is lusty and vivacious and searching for carnal satisfaction at a casual-sex site called “I’ve always wanted to write the books for women that didn’t yet exist, so I thought, I have to write about an older woman who is sexual, attractive and wants to reach out for life,” Ms. Jong said. “That’s not celebrated, sadly, and I would hope that a lot of older women who read this book realize that sex doesn’t disappear, it just changes forms.” The story centers on Vanessa Wonderman, a former actress terrified of aging and death. The surreal encounters that follow — an email exchange with a man who introduces himself by sending lewd photos, another who wants her to wear a black rubber suit, an unsatisfying hotel tryst with an old married flame — leave Vanessa reeling and worried that her sex life might be over. (This being an Erica Jong novel, it isn’t.) Some of Ms. Jong’s fans and peers are calling the novel a long overdue corrective in a cultural landscape that deifies youth and often ignores older women, or relegates them to the role of spinsters or crones. “There is this giant void in the culture about women in that age group as heroines, as romantic beings, as sexual beings and as creative beings, and there’s not that void for men,” said Naomi Wolf, author of “The Beauty Myth.” “Women don’t stop being all those things as their lives continue into those decades.” “Fear of Dying” is landing in the middle of a long-festering debate about the social and cultural obstacles older women face.

The comedian Amy Schumer has skewered the frequent sidelining of older actresses in a widely viewed skit built around the farcical — though just barely — premise that an aging actress’s desirability could dissipate in a single day. Sex therapists and gurus have published dozens of manuals and self-help books with titles like “Sex for Seniors” and “Sex Over 50.” There is also the gag book “Sex After 60,” which is blank inside. In his long essay on the way we treat the dying in contemporary America, surgeon Atul Gawande contrasts the experience of today’s patients with his grandfather’s decline in India two generations ago.

And now, seeing their decrepitude, and our own creeping changes — if not yet decrepitude — makes us think, God, we were promised something better than this! Instead, the novel, about a young poet who travels to Vienna with her husband and attempts to live out her fantasies by having an affair, became a blockbuster and cultural touchstone. When my husband read the book, he said, “It’s a love story with a happy ending.” So it is dark and it is light, it is satirical and it is sad — like all my books, I think. But bringing back that character felt forced. “There was so much baggage around ‘Fear of Flying,’ ” she said. “The weight of those expectations was very frightening.” Ms.

She used the book to explore the wrenching process of watching her parents’ slow demise, her fear of losing her looks and vitality, the joys of being a grandmother and her relationship with her daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who, like Vanessa, struggled with drug addiction.

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