Fear of Flying

The story

The novel begins on an airplane ride to Vienna, where the narrator is headed to attend a psychoanalytic conference of mostly Freudian analysts. (The opening sentence memorably reads, "There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna and I'd been treated by at least six of them.") It seems the narrator might feel anxious on airplanes, in a time of both civil unrest and fear of foreign terrorism. The narrator is both literate and well educated enough to have been reading newspaper accounts of attempted and completed airline hijackings. Freudians perhaps inevitably have their own ideas about the symbolism of an airplane in the formation of the unconscious and the sexual psyche, and this contrast provides narrative suspense. What did the six psychiatrists make of the narrator's fears? Did she tell them? What will they say in Vienna if she mentions her nervous emotions? These questions are not really explicitly stated, but they may well occur to a reader's mind. The narrator, meanwhile, occupies her mind with many questions, plans, mental rough drafts and reminiscences as her journey unfolds.

But still the "zipless fuck," a major motif in the story, haunts the novel's narrator as she travels. Eventually she reaches both solid land and even her proper destination, Vienna. There she has a sexual adventure involving both her faithful male companion Bennett and a fling, Adrian. Then it is time to depart, and after she has said goodbye to her casual lover (giving him her real New York address and telephone number, confident in her hunch that this particular man will likely just lose it anyway), the reader finds her seated in a cafe, with suitcase, feeling "like a fraud" and wondering, "Why wasn't I grateful for being hunted?" At the parting, she had felt as though there were "nothing but a slim volume of verse between me and the void." In the cafe, she muses:

But now I wanted to be alone, and if anybody interpreted my behavior differently, I'd react like a wild beast. Even Bennett, with all his supposed psychology and insight, maintained that men tried to pick me up all the time because I conveyed my "availability"--as he put it. Because I dressed too sexily. Or wore my hair too wantonly. Or something. I deserved to be attacked, in short. It was the same old jargon of the war between the sexes, the same old fifties lingo in disguise: There is no such thing as rape; you ladies ask for it. You ladies.

Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)

The last leg of the narrator's return trip must be by train, as she wishes to get from Paris to Great Britain, where she will meet up with Bennett again. As she is trying to swing her suitcase into the overhead train compartment, a young attendant wearing a blue uniform walks up and takes her suitcase from her. She thanks him, and reaches for her purse, but this supposedly universal gesture indicating "tip" seems foreign to him; he walks away. "You will be alone?" he [asks] ambiguously. He begins to pull down all the shades and to convert the compartment into a sleeper. At least, he runs his hands along the seats and the narrator assumes a linguistic gap and supplies reasons for his gestures within her own mind: she considers it most probable that he is just doing his train attendant job. She remarks that "this", possibly meaning all this attention, may not be fair to all the other passengers, for although she has travelled to Vienna, she is still an American, with an American code of politeness and consideration. And next:

"You are seule?" he asked again, flattening his palm on my belly and pushing me down toward the seat. Suddenly his hand was between my legs and he was trying to hold me down forcibly.

"What are you doing?" I screamed, springing up and pushing him away. I knew very well what he was doing, but it had taken a few seconds to register.

— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)

The narrator does not end up being sexually assaulted; instead, she has grabbed her suitcase and fled the compartment. The train attendant merely stands and allows her to leave, smiling crookedly while shrugging. She finds another compartment, and after calming down, at last concludes her meditations upon the puzzle or conundrum that is her own personal invention, the "zipless fuck":

It wasn't until I was settled, facing a nice little family group--mother, daddy, baby--that it dawned on me how funny that episode had been. My zipless fuck! My stranger on a train! Here I'd been offered my very own fantasy. The fantasy that had riveted me to the vibrating seat of the train for three years in Heidelberg and instead of turning me on, it had revolted me!

— Erica Jong, Fear of Flying (1973)

The novel remains a feminist classic and the phrase "zipless fuck" has seen a resurgence in popularity as third-wave feminism authors and theorists continue to use it while reinterpreting their approach to sexuality and to femininity. John Updike's New Yorker review is still a helpful starting point for curious onlookers. He commented, "A sexual frankness that belongs to, and hilariously extends the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye and Portnoy's Complaint."

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