Monday, January 16, 2012

The Uncoupling

I like Meg Wolitzer because her writing is close-grained: this is the quality, more than any command of story or character or language, I value most in a novelist.  When I dredge up a mental list of my favorite writers, this smallness, this upagainstness, is what unites them: Updike, Atwood, Tyler, Perrotta, Strout, Chabon, Goodman, Smiley, James.  It's why I like, despite myself, Jonathan Franzen, and why the big-brush folks (numerous, usually men, Henry Miller- ugh!) leave me so cold.

The Uncoupling is Wolitzer's lastest novel, and I went so far as to contemplate paying $12.99 for it on the Kindle before I came to my senses and checked it out of library, together with the subject of my last post.  

The book has got a strange, sweeping premise: the women of a close-knit community, in this case the faculty and students of a large suburban New Jersey high school, succumb to a spell that causes them to lose all desire to sleep with men.  There's a Lysistrata angle- the high school is in the midst of mounting a production- though Wolitzer's novel is quite far from being a modern retelling of that play.

The premise was big, but the execution, I trusted, would be small enough to keep me interested.  And, indeed, there were details aplenty.  The sex lives of five or six women were entered, explored, and, abruptly, deflated.  The fallout was dissected.  Happy marriages were thrown on the rocks.  Some women experienced empowerment; others, helplessness.

Wolitzer, like any good scientist, like any good novelist, is asking questions: What role does female desire play in our lives?  What does its absence or presence mean to us?  Who are we, as women, apart from our desire? The questions are not uninteresting and, in fiction, they are not particularly well-charted.  The fictional upswing and downswing of male desire is by now so familiar it's reducible to a couple of viagra jokes and a nod to Philip Roth, but women's wanting, for the most part, has gotten  short shrift.

With all that going for The Uncoupling, I thought I'd be no less bespelled than the novel's protagonists.   I wasn't.  My apathy had less to do with Wolitzer's writing (close-grained as promised, and wry) and more to do with the fact that there is, ultimately, a critical difference between science and fiction. 

Both novelists and researchers experiment, it's true.  They ask questions; they frame scenarios to probe for answers.  But where scientists merely observe results, fiction writers are responsible for creating their own experimentors, for bringing to life their own question-askers and hypothesis-generators.  Wolitzer's enchanted protagonists make no choices.  Unlike Lysistrata and her coterie, they do not choose chastity but are compelled to it; Wolitzer's women don't trade away their desire or suppress it, but merely proceed without it, like rats trundling through a maze.

Without choice-making, without want, there's not much story left.   Wolitzer plumbs the dregs, but, like her frustrated menfolk, I want to whine that it's not enough.


Noa said...

I love the first line of your final paragraph. It reminds me of an MLK quote I rediscovered today: "Man is man because he is free to operate within the framework of his destiny. He is free to deliberate, to make decisions, and to choose between alternatives." Choice is the key.

Anne said...

I totally read that on your blog, my dear! So pleased, incidentally, to be getting regular reading-fodder!