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The Position by Meg Wolitzer
Manual labours of love
Friday 09 September 2005
At the heart of The Position lies the sex life of Long Island academics, Roz and Paul Mellow. This hip twosome shoot to stardom in 1975 following the publication of their Joy of Sex-style manual: "Pleasuring: One Couple's Journey to Fulfillment". Fulfillment it may be for the lusty Mellows, but a life-long burden for their four children. Most mortifying for Holly, Michael, Dashiell and Claudia (aged between six and 15) are the book's graphic illustrations: tasteful line drawings of their parents artfully sprawled across white sheets, their bodies "forming some kind of human grassland"."
The book, first discovered squeezed up on a shelf between Watership Down and The Big Anthology of Golden Retrievers, makes itself known to the children one bleak November afternoon. "Once we've seen it," says eldest daughter Holly, "then we can never unsee it. It will stay in our minds. Remember when we all saw the electrocuted chipmunk? And then I had those dreams?"
Wolitzer traces the consequences of that day over the next three decades. It's a potentially skimpy construct, but saved by the fact that she is really writing about how children survive parents who seem to have appropriated everything - even good sex. The Mellow children, as you might expect, reach adulthood in various states of dysfunction. Drugs have turned Holly into some "strange hologram of herself"; good-looking Michael, a software wunderkind, has been left anorgasmic after anti-depressants; Dashiell, happily shacked up with his male partner, has come out as a Log Cabin Republican; and baby Claudia, a film student, suffers from chronic low self-esteem.
Imagine Anne Tyler as a Jewish New Yorker and that is what Wolitzer's narrative voice sounds like. A shrewd arbiter of the human condition, she writes fiction fillled with worldly asides about first wives, bad restaurants and downwardly mobile offspring. As in The Wife, which satirised postwar literary circles, here she captures both the feel and look of an era - the strawberry scent of a Seventies shampoo, the décor of an Eighties hotel lobby - as tellingly as crises of faith. Most crucially, she succeeds in writing about sex (even arousal in children) without embarrassing herself or her readers.
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