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The Position: Book Review

The Position
The Position
by Meg Wolitzer
Scribner 2005

I don’t know when I’ve been more disappointed in a novel. The topic allegedly under consideration is what first attracted me: a family in which the four children stumble upon a sex self-help book written by their parents, which includes sketches of the couple fucking in every conceivable position, plus one they claim to have invented. Considering the increasing population of parents who happen to produce X-rated content, this is a subject ripe for exploration. Wolitzer, however, does not explore; the sex book denouement is mere gimmickry, like her characters’ family name: Mellow. After half a dozen novels, a writer doesn’t use a name like that by accident.

The opening chapter is full of promise: Michael, the second eldest child, finds Pleasuring while his parents are off giving radio interviews. Unable to contain his emotional turmoil, Michael drags his three siblings down to the rec room to look at it with him. kids fight
This is the most powerful scene in the book.

The man and woman in Pleasuring were presentable, very much so, though everything they enacted—every movement, every finger insinuating itself into folds…{every} silent scream, garter, handcuff…was a new source of astonishment to their children, a series of faster and faster ball-peen hammer strikes, not all of them unpleasurable, some of them painful in the exquisite way that lifting the crisp little edge of a knee-scab is painful, and some of them arousing, though the younger children didn’t even know they were aroused, for the sensation hadn’t been defined for them yet.
The younger ones just felt ramped up, heightened, the way they felt when they chased someone across the blacktop playground at school, or when they stayed awake until midnight on New Years…{T}his is what they do in bed, the children now knew. This is why the door gets locked sometimes at night. This is who your parents are, this is why you’re not allowed in, this is what the world suddenly knows them as…this is what it’s like to be them, to be your parents, so don’ t turn away, keep your eyes popped wide, all four of you Mellow children, even the youngest one, six years old and overwhelmed with excitement and horror…this is what it’s like, and the most unbelievable part of it is that one day, this is what it will be like to be you.”

As a writer of sexual material, I couldn’t help but think about my own daughter, who’s always had a hard time with what I do. I was sure I’d want to give her the book when I finished it, but by the time I got to the end, I changed my mind.

The power of that first scene carries the reader a good long way through the novel, until the realization begins to dawn that nothing related to that moment is happening. Nor does it seem likely to happen. The Position devolves into an ordinary story about an ordinary family, following the characters through their lives, all troubled to some degree, but not terribly extraordinary for a family in present-day America. The parents are never taken to task; we never even find out if they know their kids saw the book and its pictures.

The story flashes backwards and forwards from its pivotal opening. It turns out that no sooner was the book completed than Roz Mellow fell in love with the sketch artist, wounding husband Paul forever. Their divorce seems like just another gimmick, a convenient way to break up the family so the writer never has to focus on the family unit in the aftermath of the children’s discovery.  And with the divorce coming so soon after it, I wondered if they would have connected the two events, and maybe fear sex forever. Unfortunately, the question doesn’t seem to have occurred to the author, who jumps across the years to the children as adults.

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The finale occurs twenty years later, in a scene that strains credulity. Parents and their respective spouses, and three of the adult children and their significant others, are sharing a celebratory restaurant dinner. Out of earshot of their parents, one of the kids notes that Pleasuring “could have warped us.” Claudia, the youngest, says,” It did.” The irony is, this occurs at a dinner celebrating the re-issue of Pleasuring. They have all—with the exception of the eldest— rallied round in support of the new edition. Maybe they grew to love the book for making them all wealthy.

In giving the Mellows four children, Wolitzer set up a broad tableau on which she could have painted a multi-leveled picture—and then she abandoned the original premise. The kids, obviously traumatized that day in the rec room, hardly seem to care about it later on—except perhaps for Holly, the eldest, who turns into a druggie, moves far away, and refuses to have anything to do with the family. If that’s supposed to tell us something, I hate to disappoint Ms. Wolitzer: it doesn’t. Millions of American kids leave home, become druggies, and remain estranged from parents who never put their sex lives on display. To be clear: I am not saying the parents were wrong in what they did; I’m saying that the author is wrong to completely avoid making any inquiry into the matter.

In the end, The Position is a mediocre novel from a technically accomplished writer who came up with a gimmick designed to suck in readers. It’s a dime-a-dozen family soap opera, like thousands lining the shelves of bookstores. I had hoped to find originality, pearls of wisdom, or at the very least, some insight into children of parents who go public with their sexuality. Apparently that was too much to hope for.

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Coda: I’d like to say a word or two about what I’ve done here. Rarely if ever do I write such negative reviews of fiction. It’s enormously difficult  to write any novel, even a bad one, and there’s no point to negative reviews…unless, as in this case, there’s a philosophical or political reason for it.  I felt compelled to write this because it makes me furious when a writer with absolutely no clue or experience on the issues of a given topic tries to make it her own, and ends up exploiting it–particularly when there are so many other writers more qualified to write something authentic. Yes, of course, I have a personal stake here and may be grinding an ax–but I’m not just thinking about myself. Dozens of sex writers could have produced a better, more authentic, treatment of this subject. I hope someday one of them does.

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