In 1973, Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” gave the world the now-iconic character of Isadora Wing along with her quest for no-strings-attached sex.
Isadora gave a new dimension to the feminist movement as she sought pleasure, wisdom and personal salvation through psychoanalysis, but most famously through a series of sexually charged love affairs on several continents, in search of the notorious “zipless f–k.”
Fast-forward to 2015, and both Jong and her characters have mellowed, matured and gained wisdom without losing any of their sass or earthiness. In Jong’s new novel, “Fear of Dying,” Isadora returns as what Jong calls a “Jiminy Cricket” figure, offering counsel to actress friend Vanessa Wonderman. Meanwhile, Vanessa struggles with her own, her husband’s, and her parents’ aging while seeking release through the website Zipless.com, named with meta-fictional irony.
Jong will appear in conversation with memoirist Linda Gray Sexton on Tuesday, Sept. 15 at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. The conversation, titled “From Fear of Flying to Fear of Dying,” will include themes of love, sex, aging and the power of women.
The physical and emotional challenges of age are a big part of “Fear of Dying,” as is remaining vital by holding onto physical pleasure. “Sexuality is a part of life, the whole of your life,” says Jong in a phone interview. “Forms change, but it’s always there as part of your life. For women to be ashamed of their sexuality as they age is disastrous.”
A bizarre series of meetings with men she meets on Zipless.com leads Vanessa to appreciate the richness of the bond she has with her husband. The experienced voice of Isadora is right there on her shoulder, reminding her, “What you’re looking for is connection.”
Isadora, says the 73-year-old Jong, “has now evolved … I’ve certainly evolved.”
In the wake of the Ashley Madison hack that exposed clients’ sexual desires, Jong remains bemused by the current penchant to look for love and sex on the Internet. “It’s less joyful and less about connection,” she says. “What kind of partner are you going to find online? … I don’t think women at any age are looking for casual sex online.” Instead, she says, men as well as women are looking for closeness. “We’re such pair-bonding creatures.”
Despite her cynical take on online dating, Jong volunteers that her own daughter met her husband of 10 years on JDate and is very happy. “It’s amazing.”
Jong hopes that women who read “Fear of Dying” will recognize that they’re “not alone … not the only one who has these fantasies.’”
Today’s culturally and politically polarized climate has devolved from the ideals the feminist movement was striving for in the 1970s, and that disturbs Jong profoundly.
“I can’t believe there are political candidates who would allow a mother to die in order to save a fetus, one hundred years after Margaret Sanger,” she says. “We have to change these attitudes” so that “sexuality is normal. Women shouldn’t be abused for their sexuality … Women’s rights are human rights. Women’s rights are the bedrock of a liberated society.” The younger generation “has to get involved,” writing and speaking about women’s rights.
While she finds the Jewishness in her books obvious, Jong recognizes that many critics and readers do not. “Nobody ever makes much of the fact that I discuss [Isadora’s] Jewish identity [in ‘Fear of Flying’].” Like her creator, Isadora is “a non-observant Jew” but “very proud of her heritage and the history of the Jews and the survival of the Jews.”
Jewishness, for Jong, is “a way of looking at the world,” of seeing “the humor in life and the dark side of life simultaneously. … It’s embodied in Yiddish, embodied in our jokes,” she says.
Jewish women have contributed enormously to literature, she adds, while agreeing that female writers seem to command less respect than men. “We still have a great deal of sexism in the literary world. Women write about day-to-day things, it’s called ‘chick lit.’ Men write about day-to-day things and it’s applauded.”
Also, being a mother brings insight. “It’s really our children who drag us kicking and screaming into adulthood.”
“From Fear of Flying to Fear of Dying” Erica Jong in conversation with Linda Gray Sexton. 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15, Commonwealth Club, 555 Post St., S.F. $15-$50 (with book), $7 students. www.commonwealthclub.org/events