Monday, July 25, 2011
Doing the unstuck
The Uncoupling is a retelling of sorts of Lysistrata, that bawdy Greek play about trying to stop a grinding war by closing your knees. If only it were that easy - sadly, even in the war between the sexes, there's too much fraternizing with the enemy for anyone to ever really win.
The Uncoupling is set in small, suburban Stellar Plains, New Jersey, where happily-if-uneventfully married couple Robby and Dory Lang are deep into year fifteen of teaching (both English) at Eleanor Roosevelt High. Robby and Dory are a likeable if snooze-inducing couple who take an enormous amount of pride in the fact that even though they're both on the far side of forty, the house is rockin'.
Having taught at Eleanor Roosevelt (or Elro) for so long, the Langs are well plugged into the school's gossip matrix, including the gorgeous, promiscuous (at least by Stellar Plains standards) school psychologist who is having an affair with the stolid principal; the former-lesbian gym teacher raising three boys with her uber-mensch husband; and the new drama teacher, Fran Heller, who maintains an unconventional long-distance marriage.
Fran blows into Elro and announces that she's staging Lysistrata for the school play, which seems like as good a choice as Cabaret was when I was in high school - the parents, duly horrified by the sight their kids prancing around in thigh-highs and drag, demanded (and won!) the drama teacher's ouster.
Fran promises to clean up the play's saltier bits, but as rehearsals continue, something weird is happening in Stellar Plains. Beginning with Dory, the women and girls of Elro find themselves suddenly repulsed by sex. Relationships begin to erode, starting with the Langs' seemingly impeturbable marriage, and the teenagers (hormone-addled as they are) aren't immune. The Langs' daughter Willa and Fran's son, Eli, find their budding relationship derailed, and pretty soon everyone is damn cranky.
Wolitzer has a keen eye for detail and a way of shaping prose that can be alternately tender and slicing, but she seems unsure about where her novel is going. Despite jokes about recreational drug use and sex, Stellar Plains seems almost Wobegonesque in its calmness and the relative restraint and naivete of the students, and the one high school couple who have an unwanted pregnancy are played for laughs (they named their son Trivet), until Wolitzer introduces a darker strain into the novel with the return of a young Iraq war veteran to the wreckage of his life, but then just as suddenly drops what could have been a very compelling character.
Elsewhere, Wolitzer's teachers muse about the generational divide between themselves and their students on things like sex, reading, and the Internet, although Wolitzer never really draws any conclusions (good? bad? just different?) from these meanderings. Every time Wolitzer brushes up against a more serious topic, she pulls back into the comfortable observation of the mundane and quirky relationships of the Elro teachers. The Uncoupling wraps up very neatly, with the spell broken, kisses all around, and an apparent thaw of every marital deep freeze. The explanation for the spell is rather confusing, too - Wolitzer's witchy drama teacher claims it's necessary to shake up those couples who have fallen into complacency, but the Langs seem pretty happy until the spell hits. Although Wolitzer's light prose is a delight to read, the novel ultimately feels too comfortable to be compelling.