Alex Clark

Erica Jong’s middle-aged dread

Erica Jong’s entertaining Fear of Dying focuses on the fearsome juggling act of being a daughter, parent and grandparent at 60

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, 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 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.

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