Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Exploring the Possibilities of the Zipless Fuck: Megan Hart's FLYING

Erica Jong's novel Fear of Flying (1973) stands proudly beside Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Kate Millet's Sexual Politics (1970) as one of the landmark texts of second-wave feminism. Radical in its frank portrayal of female desire, Fear of Flying depicts erotic poet Isadora Wing's picaresque quest to explore her own sexuality in language as forthright and four-lettered as anything penned by Philip Roth, Henry Miller, or D.H. Lawrence. Today's readers of erotic romance may find Isadora's self-absorption a bit narcissistic, and her fantasy of idealized no-strings-attached sex (the "zipless fuck") almost quaint in today's equal-opportunity hook-up world. But in the early 1970s, when Fear of Flying first made its way onto bookshelves and nightstands the world over, its unapologetic, taken-for-granted belief that women have sexual desires, and those desires are just as raunchy, complex, and contradictory as any man's, proved shocking not just to the average American reader, but to many in the (primarily male) literary establishment.

As I began to read erotic romance writer Megan Hart's latest, Flying, I couldn't help but think that it might have been written with Erica Jong's book, and the fantasy that her protagonist Isabelle Wing describes in that book's opening chapter, firmly in mind:

The zipless fuck was more than a fuck. It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover.
     For the true, ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never get to know the man very well. I had noticed, for example, how all my infatuations dissolved as soon as I really became friends with a man, became sympathetic to his problems, listened to him kvetch about his wife, or ex-wives, his mother, his children. After that I would like him, perhaps even love him—but without passion. (11)

In the opening chapter of Hart's Flying, we meet Stella, who seems to have achieved in actuality what Jong's Isadora could only fantasize about. In her twenties, Stella "had taught herself how to be sexy for a man," but now knows "it was so much better to be sexy for herself" (10). Stella's form of sexy is to dress in provocative clothes, fly to a random airport using the free tickets that were part of her divorce settlement from her airline CEO ex, tempt a suitable man in said airport's bar, and take him to a hotel room:

This is what she likes, what she craves. This is what she wants. Being wanted so much he'll do anything, finger her in a hotel doorway, maybe fuck her right there, not caring about anything but getting his cock inside her.... She wants to hold nothing back. Because this is what Stella really wants and craves and needs and seeks. This naked, somehow desperate connection of two people who don't even known each other's last names, but who each knows exactly how the other tastes. (21)

It's quite a shock when Chapter 2 opens with the word "Mom," and we discover that sexy Stella is a mother of a sixteen-year-old boy, a forty-something woman with a dull job, baskets full of laundry, and an ex-husband who shies away from all hints of responsibility beyond the monetary. Popular media warns incessantly about the college-aged girls being sucked into the faceless hook-up culture, but Hart shakes us out of our assumptions about who might want mindless sex, who can take pleasure from it, who has enough confidence to insist that "Her pleasure is hers. Not his." (107).

But there's more to the zipless fuck than pure anonymity. As Jong's Isadora imagines it,

The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game. The man is not "taking" and the woman is not "giving." No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one. (14)

And neither, really, has Stella. The careful reader will begin to pick up on the clues Hart scatters through her opening scene, and through the other scenes of anonymous fucking in which Stella, never using her real name, engages during the first half of the novel, that what Stella has come to call "flying" is not quite as free of ulterior motives as a pure zipless fuck might promise. For the men whom Stella chooses are men, like her, who have secrets, men who will feel both titillation and guilt in the midst of their anonymous trysts, and for long after. Men mourning their divorces, or fearing their wives are about to leave them, or afraid that nothing they can do will ever really satisfy a woman. "He looks so broken, and there's not a lot sexier than a man who needs fixing... so long as when the morning comes you can say goodbye," Stella thinks when casing out another potential lover (95).

For Stella, flying is complicated, ambiguous, complex, both a coming alive and a killing off: a "coming out of the dark and into the light, if only for a little while" (56); an "agony" she both "loves and craves" (22); each lover's "scrutiny" the punishment she "deserves" (22). Though she "should feel pity" for these broken men she tempts, she's "unable to find any. Something's cold in her. And broken. But it's her own fault, she supposes, for picking men she knows are already damaged because it feels easier to justify breaking them" (108). Stella isn't good at opening up emotionally, nor is she any good at letting things go, an impossible combination for a person with trauma in her past, a trauma that is gradually revealed through Stella's "flights," her recollections of Craig, the man whose lack of knowledge about the tragedy she'd experienced makes him far more attractive to her than her husband, and her memories of how, eight years earlier, her marriage eventually came to an end.

Stella's story shifts mid-book, from dark erotica to—what? For the longest time, I wasn't sure if Hart was asking me to transition into an erotic romance, or a work of women's fiction. In Chicago, on the way home from a real business trip, dressed not as a sexy siren but in slim-cut jeans, a stretched-out oversized cardigan, and cotton granny pants, Stella meets Matthew, another divorced parent with as much baggage as Stella carries. Before she realizes it, she's telling him her name, sharing a drink, and, when bad weather cancels her flight, accepting his offer to leave the airport bar with him and spend the night at his place. The evening feels more like a date than a hook-up, and almost doesn't end with sex at all, Matthew awkward and unsure, it being his first post-divorce experience. But Stella is relieved when Matthew overcomes his reluctance, and the familiarity of "flying" one again takes hold: "Desire had become the one true constant in her life, the only feeling she could count on never to disappoint her. Desire required nothing from her. No investment. No responsibility. All desire wanted was to be sated. It was physical, and therefore could be killed" (138).

Yet after sating her desire, Stella finds herself answering the question that Matthew asks, the one none of her other hookups have bothered with: where did she get her scars? Sharing that answer proves a catalyst for Stella, a first hint that perhaps the cold inside her can begin to thaw. She begins to build a relationship with Matthew, traveling to Chicago every other week not only for fabulous sex, but for movies and outings and snuggles on the couch. But Matthew never offers to come to Pennsylvania to visit Stella, and seems embarrassed to introduce her to his children, or even mention the fact that he's dating again to his rather clingy ex-wife. And why does he like to hang out at the airport bar, anyways? Is Stella the only one whose relationship to "flying" is more complex than it seems?

Will Matthew turn out to be a temporary stepping-stone on the way to a healthier, happier Stella, now able to accept a more mature love from former crush Craig (women's fiction)? Will Stella return to "flying" after breaking up with Matthew, able to finally enjoy a truly zipless fuck without pain or guilt after working through some of her darker issues (erotica/erotic romance)? Or will Matthew prove himself worthy of Stella's love with a suitably grand and sexy gesture, one that will erase all the doubts his prior less-than-honest behavior have engendered (romance)?

Up to the very end, I wasn't sure which direction Hart would take. And I'm not entirely sure I'm satisfied with the choice she finally made.

But I'm also not sure how satisfied she wants me to be with it, either. Or perhaps that's just wishful thinking on my part...

Would love to hear others' thoughts about Flying, especially about its ending.

Megan Hart, Flying
Harlequin/MIRA, 2014


  1. I also found the end confusing and unsatisfying. You articulate the reasons very well.

    1. Glad I wasn't the only one... Thanks, Willaful.

  2. Your post piqued my interest. I'd read Willaful's review for DA and decided to pass, in part because another book of Hart's (Indecent Experiment) didn't work that well for me.

    My reaction was different than yours and Willaful's. I loved this book. While I didn't love the portrayal of Stella's unconventional sex life as a coping mechanism -- I'd love to read a book where female promiscuity is joyful, not pathological, and isn't solved with romance or monogamy, but I suppose such a book would have to be erotica or women's fiction -- I loved the writing and how real the characters and their motivations were.

    The ending was abrupt, and I can see where other readers would find the resolution unsatisfying. I felt that going on longer or adding an epilogue would have detracted from the book artistically. I think you have to take it on faith that Matthew reforms along the lines Stella's already indicated to him. Making the trip in itself is a breakthrough for Matthew. (And as unfair as it seems that he didn't RSVP, better that than RSVP without being certain he'd make it there.) Presumably everything else will follow.

    The novel can't be measured by normal romance standards (a plus in my mind). There is no grand gesture proving Matthew worthy of Stella's love because (here's the secret) he's not. Stella tells us several times over that she loves him despite his faults and even though she shouldn't. Which is why neither of the other alternatives listed above would work. Yes, Matthew acts like an asshole. Yes, Stella is called upon to forgive and tolerate more than he does. But given the way men are socialized never to show weakness and keep their feelings to themselves, it's also realistic for Matthew to withhold his secret from Stella and act like a jackass in the meantime. It sucks, it's unfair, but it's often the price of having a relationship.

    And it's not as though Stella's never been guilty of the same thing. In a sense, Her relationship with Matthew may be Stella's karma for pushing her first husband away and blaming him (without any objective justification we can see) for their son's death -- something she can't see or accept until near the end of the book.

    1. That's an interesting perspective. To me, Matthew's arrival is a grand gesture, and perhaps that's why I have so little faith in the ending.

      You might want to check out Hart's The Space Between Us -- although it doesn't fulfill all your desires, there's nothing pathological about the main character's sexuality. Her "Every Part of You" serial also might be up your alley.

    2. Is your problem with it that the story positions it as a grand gesture, but to you it's not enough? I don't see Matthew's arrival in and of itself as a grand gesture. It's only a good first step. But in the scheme of things, I think it's a promise, both on his part (to Stella) and the author's part (to the reader).

    3. Also, thanks for the recs.

  3. Yes, that's a good way of putting it. It's the very last line of the book that really makes it not work for me; it seems so magical/wishful thinking. I needed more textual evidence to see it as a good first step that would lead to better things.

    Looking over past reviews, I often seem to have trouble with Hart's endings.

  4. Willaful -- I read that last line as the equivalent of "and they went on to live happily ever after" and as a way to avoid having to expound on it because it would require exposition or an epilogue, both of which would sap the energy from the immediacy of the surprise. It's Hart's promise (or hint) to the reader that Matthew will follow through and things will work out

    Another way of dealing with it would have been to include a paragraph or two from Matthew's POV at the end, but that would have required an abrupt POV shift.

    I've seen that criticism elsewhere. Given the unconventionality of the books Hart writes and having just read Tempted and Everything Changes (the description for Tempted appealed to me more than The Space Between Us), I can see why her endings don't always work. I really like the way Hart approaches erotic romance, though, and will probably read The Space Between Us at some point. But Naked, Dirty, and Stranger beckon first.