Title: Men, Women & Children
Author: Chad Kultgen
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Chad Kultgen, cult hero and author of the illicit classics The Average American Male and The Lie, cuts to the quick of the American psyche. In his most ambitious and hilarious book yet, Men, Women & Children, he explores the sexual pressures at work on a handful of troubled junior-high students and their dysfunctional parents. From porn-surfing fathers and their World of Warcraft-obsessed sons to competitive cheerleaders and their dissatisfied mothers, Kultgen cracks open and peers inside our emotionally disturbed culture.”
Thoughts: In Men, Women & Children, Chad Kultgen pulls no punches in his pointedly matter-of-fact exploration of human sexuality and its impact on relationships. His cast of characters is large, and the situations in which his characters find themselves cross the gamut from normal, healthy sexual expression to fetishes and beyond. Of even greater interest is the age range of his characters and the impact of social media and the Internet on fueling certain issues.
Men, Women & Children is not for the faint of heart. From the opening sentence, the reader will know whether s/he will be able to stomach the subject matter. It reads like a clinical description of pornography at times, but this method of storytelling only serves to proves Mr. Kultgen’s point. It is very reminiscent of George Michael’s hit song, “(I Want Your) Sex”, in that Mr. Kultgen showcases that everyone thinks about/obsesses about sex in some fashion and that doing so is healthy. It is how people use that obsession to drive their everyday interactions where the problems occur.
When one removes the shock and awe from the explicitness of the text, the reader is met with an abundance of thought-provoking situations. The role the Internet plays in creating and supporting unhealthy habits among young teens is something about which every parent must be aware. The fact that the teens in question are in eighth grade, even though their actions and issues seem so much older than that, is both disturbing and shocking only because of the fact that the behaviors and situations discussed in the novel are more typical than one would like to realize. One discussion with a parent of a thirteen-year-old and the reader understands that what Mr. Kultgen is describing is, unfortunately, normal for this age group. Exploring one’s sexuality through exposure to pornography and experimentation, fighting parental control, pressure to perform (whether it is in sports or in the bedroom), wanting to fit in and feel important – this is very much what a modern-day teen faces each and every day. Mr Kultgen presents this tragic but true situation rather clinically, removing the sense of horror that so easily could be added in order to add credence and legitimacy. It is an effective ploy.
For the adults in the novel, Mr. Kultgen explores similar topics as Meg Wolitzer did in her most recent novel, The Uncoupling. Sex in adult relationships means something completely different than it does in teenage relationships, and both novels portray the more nuanced power behind sex among couples. Whereas Ms. Wolitzer explored the feminine aspect of this dynamic, Mr. Kultgen focuses on the male perspective.
While sex is the uniting theme among the cast of characters, it is by no means the main point of Men, Women & Children. Rather, it is an emotionless exploration of humanity – a girl fighting an eating disorder, a young man struggling with depression, a mother trying to protect her daughter, and another mother trying to ensure her daughter achieves her dreams, the power struggle between child and parent as the child gets older, the power struggles among teens. These are the all-too-common issues faced by much of today’s society and deserve to be studied and highlighted. For those who are willing and able to overlook the purposefully explicit scenes, designed to draw ire and shock, the result is an eye-opening study of the pressures our teens face at younger and younger ages and how parents’ own self-absorption fuels their responses.
Thank you to Erica Barmash from Harper Perennial for my advanced reading copy. She warned me it would be a challenging but rewarding read, and she was right!