Long Island Books: Sexless in Jersey

By Evan Harris
Lisa Barlow

    The novelist Meg Wolitzer, who is known for the wry and witty voice of her books (among them “The Ten-Year Nap,” “The Position,” and “The Wife”), has come out with a new one. It is also wry and witty, Ms. Wolitzer’s practiced voice bent once again to the purpose of social observation. She takes it right on up to the edge of satire, even dips into that pot now and then to harden up her pencil a bit, but on the whole she steers toward a light realism and social commentary without too much of a biting edge.
    Set in and around Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Stellar Plains, N.J., “The Uncoupling” takes place over the course of a winter and ends at the spring thaw. A new drama teacher has been hired at the school, and she chooses to mount a production of the Aristophanes comedy “Lysistrata.” That’s the one, as Ms. Wolitzer writes, “first performed in 411 B.C., about a woman who leads the women of Greece in a sex strike in order to put an end to the drawn-out Peloponnesian war.”
    It is an antiwar play, and also an explicit sexual comedy, full of references to adult themes and actual sex acts. Weird choice for a high school play, but it will all be revealed. As casting and rehearsals for “Lysistrata” get under way, a strange “spell” — felt as a kind of cold draft — begins to fall on the females, women and high school girls, who are intimately or tangentially connected to the production. Weird request for suspension of disbelief, but don’t be a grouch, it’s easily done, and don’t worry — it will all be resolved.
    Here’s how Ms. Wolitzer introduces the spell enchanting Dory Lang, an English teacher at the high school and one of the central characters in the novel:
    “It was the cold air of the spell, come to claim her. Other spells were far more dramatic, accompanied as they were by lightning, or a sizzling clang of thunderclap. This spell was more subtle, but still when it first came over a woman it was shocking, perhaps even grotesque, and she didn’t have any idea she was under it. Dory Lang felt simply as if she was freezing, and then she was aware of a mild disgust, no, even a mild horror at being touched. Certainly not pleasure; none of that for her anymore.”
    The bulk of “The Uncoupling” outlines the way erasure of desire affects the characters in the book. As a device, the spell acts as a shortcut. There’s no need to develop the psychology or circumstances that may engender a loss of sexual desire in any particular character. There’s no need to closely examine the merits and demerits of the men with whom the women would actually be having sex, if not for the spell. The spell simply envelops the women without regard to background information. It is an equal opportunity spell.
    So that’s handy. With a common cause, Ms. Wolitzer can skip straight to effect, collapsing each woman’s reaction to going under the spell with her more general situation in life. Sometimes women don’t want to have sex! “The Uncoupling” looks at how that plays out, how it is articulated or expressed — how you explain it and to whom, if you choose to do so directly or at all.
    Ms. Wolitzer takes maximum advantage of the wealth of interrelated characters offered up by the setting of a suburban high school. There’s pleasant, pretty, intelligent Dory — mentioned above — who is in a stunningly healthy, workable, respectful, amenable, sexy, long-term marriage to her husband, Robby, a fellow English teacher. Imagine the impact of the spell on that poor guy!

“The Uncoupling”
Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead Books, $25.95

    Then there’s Willa, this couple’s lackluster 16-year-old daughter who takes on a bit more shine when she becomes involved in a hot and heavy teenage romance with Eli, the unusually bright son of the new drama teacher at the school. It’s looking incredibly sweet and passionate until the spell comes along and she drops him cold, man.
    Filling out the cast of characters are Leanne, the willfully single, young, and beautiful school psychologist, who must dump three separate bed partners when the spell hits her, and Ruth, the ex-lesbian gym teacher now married with twin boys and an infant, who breaks down in a desperate need for personal space when the spell takes her:
    “. . . she couldn’t bear the idea of getting into bed with Henry tonight, and of being touched by him, or anyone else. She realized now that she had been overtouched; she was like a computer with a thousand fingerprints on the screen. How did anyone tolerate being touched? she wondered. How did her friends stand it? It was terrible, all that touching.”
    There are some interesting twists. One character, Bev, the middle-aged guidance counselor at the high school, has been in a sexless marriage for some time before the spell takes hold of her. Then, suddenly, she doesn’t want to have sex on top of not actually having it. This poses an interesting question of agency and also introduces the role of anger into the mix as Bev socks it to her husband, letting him know who’s calling the shots even though the game appears to be over.
    Ms. Wolitzer’s ear for dialogue is well developed, convincing, and extremely entertaining: Her characters say funny things, funny things you can imagine actual people saying. Her eye for detail is similarly expert, capturing specifics accurately throughout the book. Occasionally the novel’s relationship to accurate, well-observed details becomes uneasy when there seems to be a surfeit of them and it isn’t clear how the details serve to comment.
    Still, though, Ms. Wolitzer hits things on the head, perhaps in order to clang out the environment of “The Uncoupling,” fixing it as a mirror to the actual world. It’s a very highly reflective, even high-definition, mirror. Except, naturally, for the matter of the spell being nothing more than a spell.

    Meg Wolitzer, a regular visitor to Springs, teaches in the M.F.A. program at Stony Brook Southampton.
    Evan Harris is the author of “The Quit.” She lives in East Hampton with her husband and two sons.