Who’d get old? Bits fall off, your loved ones start dropping like flies and, perhaps worst of all, the only afternoon delight you’re up to is a cup of tea and a soporific radio play. Wealthy New Yorker Vanessa Wonderman, Erica Jong’s 60-year-old narrator, isn’t there yet, but she can see it coming down Fifth Avenue with its headlights on. Her parents are slowly and painfully quitting the world; her husband Asher, 15 years her senior, is succumbing to illness and certainly not capable of elaborate bedroom antics; and her acting career has faltered in the predictable absence of decent parts for middle-aged women. Despite high-end plastic surgery (‘as mandatory as leg waxing’), Time’s wingèd chariot hurries near: ‘We seldom go to an event,’ Vanessa muses ruefully, ‘where some aged acquaintance doesn’t get carried out on a stretcher.’
But she’s not going down without a fight, hence her signing up to zipless.com, a website ripped off from her friend Isadora Wing’s coinage, ‘the zipless fuck’. Both Wing and the term, of course, came to life in Jong’s celebrated 1973 novel of sexual hedonism, Fear of Flying. Despite Vanessa’s wobbles, Wing is still going strong, with her ‘curly blond hair and big smile, as if she is 30 not 60’. She’s also got the measure of the new world of carnal liberation: what people are really looking for, she maintains, is ‘slow sex in a fast world’.
She might be right. Vanessa’s foray on zipless.com brings her an ageing Christian Grey, only less charming, and she quickly returns her attention to her life’s other trouble spots. Most notable, and most movingly rendered, are the approaching deaths of her parents, two old showbiz stars and one-time victims of the blacklist who are also refusing to go gently. Her father is a particular joy, threatening to disinherit his three daughters if they fail in their filial duties and tormenting healthcare practitioners. In response to a geriatrician asking how he’s feeling,‘My father pulls out his tube with great elan and croaks “Malpractice!”.’ Of course, Vanessa adores him.
Jong’s narrative proceeds episodically — discrete chapters deal with her parents, with her marriage, with her daughter Glinda, a one-time child actress and recovered addict, now expecting Vanessa’s first grandchild. It is humorous, chatty and expansive, with much jolly high-culture name-dropping (‘my late friend Anthony Burgess’), and reads like a memoir even if it is not one. At moments, Jong does seem to burst into proceedings to issue pronouncements, particularly on the state of contemporary feminism:
Dear Goddess, how did my generation get feminism so wrong?… How much the ideologues got wrong. How were we ever going to exclude our fathers and grandfathers and brothers and sons and husbands — all of them — and mentors and pals? We didn’t spring full grown from the egg of time.
Indeed not: but the ‘egg of time’ does not quite meet the complexity of current arguments about gender normativity and fluidity. That, Jong might counter, is not her job. And while hardly the high watermark of feminist fiction, Fear of Dying is an entertaining and occasionally provocative addition to it.
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