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Life and death, sex and love: a Jongian theory of middle age


When, in 1973, "Fear of Flying" landed on the oil-slicked tarmac of the best-seller lists, Erica Jong, in the auto-erotic pilot's seat, collided with a bucket of spare parts that had been parked on the runway since the Victorian age: myths about "nice" girls. The book was a sensation, and so was its nubile, voluptuous author whose intra- and extra-marital adventures made great -- as it were -- bedtime stories.

Snubbed as a "trashmeister" by the lit-crit crowd, Erica Jong had style, pizazz, boundless energy and a gift for phrase making and wordplay. "Zipless," an adjective Ms. Jong created to denote a brief, passionate sexual encounter, is now recognized (although as "coarse slang" by no less than the Oxford English Dictionary), and is fully attributed to Ms. Jong. Perhaps it is an effect of aging that what was once notoriously unacceptable seems pretty tame in the context of popular culture.

Twenty-some years on, with a list of hits and a couple of flops as part of her checked baggage, Ms. Jong has arrived again. In "Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir," Erica Jong flies in the face of the half-century mark, determined to tell her own life story as honestly as she can. By writing brazenly about her sex life and poking fun at some of humanity's deepest (and most ridiculous passions), Ms. Jong challenges the gag rules placed on female writers by patriarchal society.

What is not shocking in this memoir is the way Ms. Jong uses all those naughty four-letter words that mothers said nice girls should not use. What remains surprising is the way that she makes adultery (otherwise known as cheating) sound OK -- especially if it is a fling to relieve the boredom of marriage.

As part of the "whiplash generation," Ms. Jong sees herself as the comrade of those women who were "caught between our mothers [who stayed home] and the next generation [who took the right to achieve for granted.]" For women who were brought up in one culture and then came of age in another, the rules of the game of life seem to be constantly changing.

In "Fear of Fifty," Ms. Jong dissects the consistencies that have shaped women's lives in the 20th century. "Did men change or did women change?" she asks. "I look around me in America and madness reigns. The antisex league is in charge. Some feminists of my generation have rallied mightily to the antisex cause. The truth is: Sex is terrifying, full of uncontrollable darkness and illogic that it is far easier to suppress. Easier to scream Rape! than to admit complicity in desire. . . ." Exploring the realm of female desire made Ms. Jong famous; motherhood and fourth marriage seem to have brought her more serenity and fulfillment but no lessening of passion.

Erica Jong likes men, and men appear to reciprocate. Probing the nexus of sex and love, and their often tangential relationship, she revels in nakedness, in revealing everything about the people she has loved, shared her life with, and/or married.

"I have lived as I chose," Ms. Jong boasts, "married, divorced, remarried, divorced, remarried and divorced again -- and still worse, dared to write about my ex-husbands!" Writing about women's fantasies and private lives, she remains refreshingly bold; sexual energy throbs on practically every page. In fact, in this most intimate autobiography Erica Jong reveals perhaps more than one may wish to know about people who were or are important to her life and career. She may have readjusted some of her values as the AIDS epidemic redefined promiscuity, but it is quite obvious that she fears nothing except, perhaps, loneliness -- and the occasional book reviewer.

Facing 50 and unable to escape the demon she calls the malach hamovia (Hebrew for the Angel of Death), Ms. Jong calls up all the ghosts of the past. Her grandparents, parents and extended family fill in the background of this memoir, giving it the qualities of a chronicle founded upon her family's middle-class Jewish aspirations and failures.

fTC Literary fathers and mothers show up in abundance: Shakespeare, Byron, Eliot (T. S. and George), Neruda, Austen, Emily Bronte, Plath and Woolf. The gossipy parts about some of the author's real-life encounters with Mark Strand, Ted Hughes and Norman Mailer run at a breathless pace. (On Henry Miller: "When he wasn't being a sage, he was being an old goat -- wisdom side by side with low burlesque.")

Scathing reviews, writer's block, shrinks, drugs, diets, drink, recovery -- Erica Jong has gone the rounds searching for love in all the wrong places. In this midlife memoir, she reflects upon how she has turned her experience into fodder for poetry and fiction. There are telltale signs of a writer "of a certain age": midlife motherhood; an aunt with Alzheimer's disease; the author's own breast lump that was to be diagnosed, after panic, as benign. Ms. Jong seems curiously untouched by tragedy; she is, above all, a survivor.

"Fear of Fifty" reminds us all that we're not as young as we used to be, but Ms. Jong's exuberance often makes it hard to remember that she is writing about mortality. "Now we survive childbirth," she points out, "and face the dilemma of turning fifty," resplendent with eye bags and chin flab so horrifying to a society that values "cute."

Ms. Jong proves that turning 50 does not mean beauty and desire have died, or that a woman must have passed her sell-by date. Her observations about the human condition are simultaneously hilarious and pitiless, if unprintable in a family newspaper. "To lift or not to lift" becomes a serious question for a famous writer about to embark on another book tour. (The photograph) on the book jacket shows a woman who looks younger than -- as doctors say -- her stated age.) Sexual fantasies, especially at a certain age, should include "Beluga, not bologna."

Sometimes the brashness gives way to nostalgia, and Ms. Jong cautions the reader that "Nothing saves us from growing old, I think. Not celebrity, not talent, not personal charm, not wealth, not wit." There's only one option she leaves out: early death. Erica Jong is too full of life to add that option to her catalog.

Title: "Fear of Fifty: A Midlife Memoir"

Author: Erica Jong

Publisher: HarperCollins

Length, price: 325 pages, $24

Dr. Kaplan is associate professor of English and associate academic dean at Goucher College.

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