Men, Women & Children
It’s telling that, on the first edition jacket for Men, Women & Children, Chad Kultgen and Harper chose to include a hearty back cover endorsement from Stoya, the pornographic actress. There’s some obvious logic behind it — the 25-year-old fetish princess gets a few nods throughout the novel (as an object of the sexual fantasies of a middle-aged man) — but it also makes sense because it’s apparent that, with his third book, Kultgen is still pushing his own brand of porn.
This is a text that reads much more like a screenplay than a novel; and to that extent, it’s one in which the lens tends to move very quickly between two extremes: the close-up and the panorama. Kultgen, a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, seems entirely comfortable with that style — the question is whether or not it will always end up working for him.
Men, Women & Children is a fast, wordy, and utterly voyeuristic journey into the lives of several families who all have a stake in the sugary, suburban environment of Goodrich Junior High School. Kultgen’s camera treats budding 13-year-old students and their stressed-out parents with an equally detailed eye — and that’s what makes it, at times, rather disturbing.
When it comes to elements of personal life that one might not discuss over dinner (or over anything) not much is left out: there’s plenty of petty jealousy, hidden agendas, deep depression, masturbation, “alternative” online pornography, suicide, and loads of sex, whether it be pubescent or extra-marital. For Kultgen, all the drama — and the lack of communication that spawns it — boils down to the technology that so dominantly figures in the life of characters of both generations. The perversely developing impulses of Chris
Truby, the Goodrich football team’s star receiver, and the stealthy affairs that ensnare both of his parents — they both leave trails leading straight back to the Internet, a few illicit text messages, and the blurry anonymity of the digital world.
So Kultgen’s literary porn isn’t just about the sex; it’s born of the violent, erotic
movements of his camera lens as it continually shifts — pulling back from the
penetration to reveal a much broader and intense commentary, implicating the ones and zeroes of social networking in what’s become our fundamental inability to get through to one another as real people. Whether it’s your single dad or the girl who gave you your first kiss, no one’s safe.
It’s a well-woven narrative, and the images hit hard — but it’s tough to buy into
Kultgen’s no-holds barred condemnation of post-modern communication (whether or not he admits to doing that) without a chance to see all the middle ground that lies between the dark intimacy of the close-up and the all-encompassing panorama of digital society itself. In that vein, what could have been some useful (intellectual?) supporting evidence is generally replaced by dialogue and quick descriptions (remember, it should’ve been a screenplay).
David Lodge saw all of this coming when he wrote Changing Places — “All I’m saying is that there is a generation gap,” explains his character Philip Swallow, “and I think it revolves around this public/private thing. Our generation — we subscribe to the liberal doctrine of the inviolate self. It’s the great tradition of realistic fiction, it’s what novels are all about…Well, the novel is dying, and us with it…Those kids are living a film, not a novel.”
Problem is, that was 1975. Now, that film we might have been living has become a reality TV show, a viral video, or an illegally downloaded mp3 file — and it doesn’t just apply to the kids (which is at least one thing that Kultgen has, rather poignantly, nailed). But that brings us back to that original question: is the novelized screenplay the most culturally relevant way to tell the story at the heart of Men, Women & Children?
I don’t think so, but it’s difficult to imagine a way in which any novel could (from a critical perspective) capture the ways in which our brains have been re-wired by the instant gratification of technology. Maybe David Shields wasn’t that crazy when he said he couldn’t really enjoy straight-ahead fiction anymore.
In any case, the answer is still quite clearly yours to invent, as are all of those
anonymously perverse sexual fantasies. After all, as Kultgen reminds us, the dark cloud of the Internet isn’t going anywhere — and, thankfully, neither is Stoya.