"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Imagine that an entire town of girls and women are cast with a spell that causes them to lose their libidos and refuse sex. That is the fantastical premise of Meg Wolitzer’s latest novel, “The Uncoupling” — and the aftermath is disconcertingly familiar.
A local school production of the Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” in which women withhold sex to end the Peloponnesian War, happens to coincide with the spread of mass female frigidity. (Interestingly enough, the book’s release follows some real-world sex strikes.) The middle-aged protagonist, Dory, starts researching desire-enhancing drugs, turns to sex advice in glossy magazines and, upon her husband’s urging, even tries playing “The Game of Want,” an absurd exercise designed for sexless marriages. Given the current feverish quest for “female Viagra,” the book is a timely commentary on our cultural fixation on female desire.
At its core, though, “The Uncoupling” has a more timeless concern: how relationships, and people, change over time. You see, it isn’t just about sex but intimacy and passion in their many different manifestations. Wolitzer, who took on the Mommy Wars with her novel “The Ten-Year Nap,” manages both tenderness and wit in this elegy to the things lost when you get older — whether it’s a fit figure, a raging libido or a naiveté in matters of the heart.
I recently spoke to Wolitzer — an insightful cultural observer, especially when it comes to women’s interior emotional lives — about the fear of losing passion, our scrutiny of female desire and how love is its own kind of spell.
Where did you get the idea for the book? What was the inspiration?
Well, I knew that I wanted to write a book that looked at female desire over time. It really started with middle-aged women talking to me about changes or disappointments in their sexual lives. I didn’t want to write a whole novel about that but I thought, “How does sex change over time — what happens?”
At the same time, I was thinking that I wanted to try something a little different. We’re used to the idea of [writers] using how people have sex as a way of getting a character but I thought I might reverse it by talking about all of the reasons people might not have sex, and I started thinking about “Lysistrata.” But what interested me most was not war or the absence of sex as a political statement — when I imagined trying to write those parts it was kind of like trying to hide a bad facial feature. What I really wanted was to look at female desire and female ambivalence toward men and their relationships.
The book really taps into the fear that even very happy couples have about their sex life disappearing someday, and how older women take some delight in passing along the warning that things will change.
You’re always told things like this from people who are somewhat bitter about their own experience. I remember when I was pregnant, I was told by friends: Better go to the movies now, you’ll never see a first-run movie in the theater again. Things do change, but I think there’s an enormous continuum of libido and we’re supposed to act as though the norm is this constant desire and you’re not supposed to say otherwise. I thought, What if you do write about those vicissitudes? When you’re young or at the start of a relationship, sex has this centrality but later on it doesn’t. What if other things take its place — is it always a tragedy? No. It really does change but it changes back and it can change again. It really depends on the person. I try to base these things within the locus of a specific character rather than someone who stands for all middle-aged women. I wouldn’t possibly dare to do that. That would be polemical.
The novel’s protagonist, Dory, has what seems an ideal marriage. They are both best friends and passionate lovers. What was your thinking behind that relationship?
I did want to write about a marriage that was good from the start. That was important to me so that I didn’t somehow send the wrong idea to the reader that things had been brewing for a really long time. I thought there’s something very moving and emotional and sad to me about getting older, and getting older with someone can be quite wonderful but there are acknowledgments of change. I think it’s Robert Louis Stevenson who said that marriage is a long conversation. You can go out to dinner with your spouse and suddenly conversation stops for a long time — but it doesn’t mean that the relationship is over or that you have nothing to say, and I think that’s true with sex and lovemaking as well. Familiarity can be great and it can be boring — it really does depend.
One of the depressing things to me about the book is that, while there is this fantastical premise, everything that transpires in the book is actually incredibly familiar.
Well, that’s why I really wanted that magical realism. You know, let’s get a little García Márquez into this suburban New Jersey town, because otherwise you want to shoot yourself at the idea of everybody not having sex.
There are all these attempts in the book to ignite female desire, which remind me of the search for female Viagra and porn for women and so on. It just seems that culturally speaking we’re kind of vexed by female sexuality.
I have this friend who has a theory about marriage and sex. She thinks that women get more bored by marital sex than men because their standards for sex are higher. But the idea that marital sex is boring isn’t an acceptable thought to them so they read it as a lack of interest in sex in general.
With the spell, I really meant that we are under the influence of unconscious forces. For two people to fall in love, they have to kind of say we both believe in this thing, we both have this force field around us — and what is that if not a kind of weird spell? And then when love and sex wanes, that in itself is a kind of spell too.
The female characters seem very perplexed and disturbed by their lack of desire. It seems paradoxical — this desire to desire — and yet we see it all the time in the real world.
You have to ask the question, Why do you want to want? Is it because you feel that you should? Is it that the culture is so sexually driven? Do you really miss the life-giving properties of sex? Do you miss intimacy? Intimacy is as important as anything.
One of things that was striking to me is that the novel really reveals how vulnerable people are in sex even when they’re not having sex — the sense of personal rejection in a marriage when someone says, “No, I’m not in the mood tonight.”
I actually wrote a whole other novel called “The Position” about these parents who in the 1970s write a kind of “Joy of Sex” book and what happens to their kids over time. I had their parents be in those pastel illustrations of various sexual positions. But the point of writing about sex in that book was really to write about the vulnerability that people have, and about the awkwardness of it and about the mastery in it as well.
Speaking of vulnerability, one character’s husband tells her that she’s really let herself go.
And she really wants to stop having sex after he says this, but it’s the spell that allows her to be the one to say to him, “I don’t want to have sex.” And he says, “But we haven’t been anyway” and she responds, “Yes, but I’m the one initiating it.” She is actually taking action and making him aware of what he said and how it changed things between them.
Shame so influences everything, even at the beginning of sex. When I was young, I remember sitting in someone’s suburban bedroom with my friends and this girl warned, “Never let a boy see you lying on your back because you’ll look fat,” and I was so worried! Already there was that fear. One thing that a long relationship does is it can take that away, and it can sometimes take away other things.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)