In her 1973 novel Fear of Flying Erica Jong presented us with the idea of the “zipless fuck,” a brand of no-strings-attached sex that leads heroine Isadora Wing on an epic journey of self-discovery. “The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is,” Isadora explains. “And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.”

By the end of the book, she’s still never had one: when she’s presented with the opportunity on a train in Europe, Isadora balks.

In Jong’s latest novel, Fear of Dying, Isadora’s famous notion has been appropriated without credit and turned into a dating website called Isadora, meanwhile, is a changed woman. She appears here in a supporting role, a sort of world-weary sage and counselor to her best friend Vanessa, an aging actress who becomes preoccupied with her own search for easy-peasy sex outside of marriage. “So you’ve stopped believing in Ziplessness?” Vanessa asks Isadora, who responds, “Absolutely . . . It works in fantasy not in reality. In reality you have to trust someone to have great sex, and who can trust what you read on the Internet?” Nonetheless, Vanessa uses to meets a series of weirdos and losers: a guy who requests she dress up in a leather gimp suit, another who reacts violently when she wants to take things slowly.

Jong’s book is presented as a tale of sex and aging in the age of the Internet, but it’s really a melancholic exploration of loss and the condition of being constantly confronted with mortality, our own and others’, as we grow older. In the course of the book Vanessa endures the death of both her parents—”Will I ever get over my parents?” she wonders. “Does anyone?”—as well as a beloved pet, and almost loses her somewhat older husband, Asher, to a sudden illness. And simultaneously she’s mourning what she perceives as the loss her sexual desirability. The narrator never reveals her age but notes that men don’t stop and stare the way they used to. Validation by way of the male erection, even her husband’s, doesn’t come as easily. “Sexual starvation is like other forms of hunger, but hunger is not love,” Vanessa observes. And although it’s one of the most fundamental expressions of humanity, sex just can’t accomplish what intimacy can.

Dying might not be as entertaining as Flying, but, despite its somewhat hokey setup and stale takedown of Internet culture, it feels like a more substantial book. We can sense the emotional direction in which Vanessa is headed, but that doesn’t make the outcome feel less genuine. It’s also a refreshing reminder to young people that sexuality doesn’t expire at a certain age. I imagine this book could be as empowering to women approaching old age as Flying was when they were 20-somethings.  v