by Chad Kultgen
Beyond anything else, Chad Kultgen's Men, Women and Children is about what happens when we fail to communicate. Filled with characters wrestling with their most basic desires, Kultgen lays out two generations wrapped up in sex and fear. Junior high kids starve themselves and obsess over World of Warcraft, while their parents watch porn on lunch breaks and consider affairs. Everyone is fucked up in their own little way.
Yes, these characters are trapped inside how small they feel, and they make bad decisions in search of relief.
Despite being fully aware of the fact that what she was about to do was, at the very least, exploitative and possibly bordering on criminal with regard to the treatment of her own child, Dawn quickly set up a PayPal account and hired a web designer to build a members-only section on her daughter's website. She had a talk with Hannah to make sure she had no reservations about wearing some more revealing outfits on this section of the site. Hannah explained that she was proud of her body and understood that if she was to be discovered by a director like Darren Aronofsky or Paul Thomas Anderson and they wanted her to participate in a nude scene, she wouldn't hesitate to oblige them. This, she reasoned, was just practice for any feature-film roles that might come her way in the future.
In an attempt to hide or rectify any bad decision-making, these characters usually make worse decisions. Most of the pain and heartbreak could be avoided if they talked to the other person, or at the very least, didn't assume the very worst.
An over-protective mother checks her daughter's online accounts with zeal, while her daughter has created and hidden a secret profile, where she used to make up a more "exciting" life, but now she uses it to communicate with her boyfriend. Her boyfriend used to play football and now he doesn't see the point in it all, so his dad is freaked out by the change. He is also wrecked by his wife leaving him and moving to California, but finds he enjoys the company of Dawn, modeling website purveyor. Unbeknownst to her, her daughter is trying to figure out why her boyfriend likes "weird" porn, but feels a strange pressure to satisfy him. And on and on it goes.
On the back of the ARC I received, the summary says that Kultgen "cuts to the quick of the American psyche," and I thought, "God, I hope not." Especially once I thought about my 13-year-old experiences, versus these kids, versus what might await my kids in a few years. But then, I kept reading, wanting to know how these screw-ups would ever make it out of their situations without involving death or explosion, and that's when I got it — The American Psyche will always watch a wreck.
Although Brooke was enjoying herself, it was difficult for her not to think about the image on Hannah's phone of her performing fellatio on a random and unnamed boy. She had no choice but to compare herself to Hannah and when she did, she felt inferior. As Danny rubbed his hand against her stomach, she made the decision that Hannah wasn't going to be the only one to have a boy's penis in her mouth in the eighth grade.
This book dares you to look away all while making you remember every sex-related deed you've ever done. And like Brooke, you might start comparing: "When did I do [x]? Is that better or worse?" Everything teenage, it seems, falls into a grey area. As adults, maybe it's easier to contrast and compare "bad" behavior, or maybe I'm just speaking for myself.
I give Kultgen and the publisher bonus points for getting Stoya, the adult film actress mentioned in a few chapters, to blurb the book. She says it "explores all the things that most Americans don't talk about," and calls the story "beautiful." I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call Men, Women and Children beautiful, but I do recognize the intricate dance Kultgen has created. Each story element cycles into the other, and there is certainly no ambiguity, but I find it hard to say whether or not I enjoyed the book. It was compelling, thought-provoking and well-written, but "enjoy" is not the right verb. That doesn't mean it isn't worth reading. It is a modern cautionary tale mixed with voyeurism, and it is not without humor, but I can't say I felt good after reading it.
From the opening page, an epigraph:
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
— Carl Sagan
Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me an advanced review copy of this book, so my pull quotes may appear slightly different in the final edition. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.