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Book Review

Wolitzer’s ‘Uncoupling’ fumbles with intimacy

By Laura Bennett
Globe Correspondent / April 5, 2011

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Meg Wolitzer is known for probing the inner lives of modern females. Her last novel, “The Ten-Year Nap,’’ followed several women who had opted out of their careers to raise children. Now, in “The Uncoupling,’’ she sets out to shed light on various faces of contemporary sexual life: the changing shape of intimacy in the digital age, generational rifts between parents and teenage children, and the slow erosion of conjugal desire.

At the heart of “The Uncoupling’’ is the model marriage of Robby and Dory Lang, whose union is built on a kind of ageless chemistry that inspires wonder and envy in friends. They are English teachers at the high school in Stellar Plains, N.J., a nondescript suburban outpost. Life is dependably ordinary until a drama teacher sweeps into the school and decides to direct the Aristophanes comedy “Lysistrata,’’ in which the women of ancient Greece stage a sex strike to pressure their husbands into ending the Peloponnesian War.

Suddenly, the Langs stop having sex. And one by one, the other couples in town follow suit. “[T]he spell had started to come over all of them,’’ Wolitzer writes, “seizing [women] in their separate beds, changing them in an instant.’’ Something in the air, some strange atmospheric magic, has snuffed out their libidos overnight. Soon the spell grips all the women, sowing marital tensions and adolescent heartbreak.

Wolitzer is not coy with her symbolism. “Everyone seemed to have abbreviated focus,’’ she writes. “How could you make love if you couldn’t pay attention?’’ The spell, in part, represents the enchantments of technology, the temptations of the virtual over the physical. Teenagers spend their free time in a digital world called “Farrest,’’ where avatars romp together in the pixelated woods. Meanwhile, the adults, grumbling about the simpler good old days, are no less susceptible to the siren song of late-night Web browsing. “As the hours disappeared,’’ Wolitzer says, “sometimes they purchased slippers, or read about a newly discovered species of lizard, or about a disease they feared they had.’’ Surfing the Internet is a mess of aimless impulses, but sex is resolute: a single push toward an unmistakable goal. And so sex and technology are incompatible forces in a world of shrunken attention spans and constant distraction.

The “Lysistrata’’ subtext complicates a message already straining under the weight of too much plot contraption. War enters the picture in the form of a teenage vet who impregnates his girlfriend, decamps for Afghanistan, and returns partially disfigured. The war, he says, is “a disgusting waste of energy and time and life.’’ So war is also like the Internet, both dead ends, black holes, consumers of young lives.

“Lysistrata,’’ as Aristophanes intended it, is absurd. The men sport prosthetic erections, and dirty puns abound. But instead of comfortably over-the-top, “The Uncoupling’’ is flat and implausible. It feels stuck between surreal distortion and emotional specificity, like a portrait stretched to the wrong proportions. Wolitzer is at her best painting in small, exact strokes. Here, in her push to create a modern fable, she is often too blatant in her themes, too broad in her characterizations, and too reliant on magic to move the plot. The climactic scene, in which the spell lifts as the men of Stellar Plains confess mortifying details about their sex lives to a crowded auditorium, is more far-fetched than funny.

But there are flashes of a sharper story. At one point, Robby and Dory play an “adult’’ board game in an attempt to revive their flagging chemistry. They draw a card that instructs them to tie bandanas around their necks and square dance without clothes. “Neither of them would possibly do the naked square dance, and they both knew it,’’ Wolitzer says. It is a genuine scene, at once comic and sad. Wolitzer reveals the most about love and sex in authentic moments such as this one, when we can forget that the spell exists at all.

Laura Bennett, assistant literary editor of The New Republic, can be reached at bennett.laura.ann@gmail.com.

THE UNCOUPLING By Meg Wolitzer

Riverhead, 271 pp., $25.95