Crackling with intelligence and humor, The Position is the masterful story of one extraordinary family at the hilarious height of the sexual revolution -- and through the thirty-year hangover that followed.
In 1975, Paul and Roz Mellow write a bestselling Joy of Sex-type book that mortifies their four school-aged children and ultimately changes the shape of the family forever. Thirty years later, as the now dispersed family members argue over whether to reissue the book, we follow the complicated lives of each of the grown children and their conflicts in love, work, marriage, parenting, and, of course, sex -- all shadowed by the indelible specter of their highly sexualized parents. Insightful, panoramic, and compulsively readable, The Position is an American original.
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Meg Wolitzer's novels include Sleepwalking; This Is Your Life; Surrender, Dorothy; and The Wife. She lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The book was placed on a high shelf in the den, as though it were the only copy in the world and if the children didn't find it they would be forever unaware of the sexual lives of their parents, forever ignorant of the press of hot skin, the overlapping voices, the stir and scrape of the brass headboard as it lightly battered the plaster, creating twin finial-shaped depressions over the years in the wall of the bedroom in which the parents slept, or didn't sleep, depending on the night.
The book sat among a collection of unrelated and mostly ignored volumes: Watership Down, Diet for a Small Planet, Building a Deck for Your Home, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr., The Big Anthology of Golden Retrievers, and on and on and on. It was casually slipped in, this one copy of the book that the parents brought into the house, for if they'd stored all their copies, including the various foreign editions, in taped-up boxes in the basement marked "Kitchenware" or "Odds and Ends," that would have sent a message to the children: Sex is filth. Or at least, if not exactly filth, then something unacceptable to think about anywhere except beneath a blanket, in pitch darkness, between two consenting, loving, lusty, faithful, married adults.
This, of course, was not the view of the parents, who for a very long time had loved sex and most of its aspects -- loved it so dearly that they'd found the nerve and arrogance to write a book about it. When they thought of their four children reading that book, though, they brooded about what kind of effect it would have on them over time. Would it simply bounce off their sturdy, sprouting bodies, or else be absorbed along with the fractions and canned spaghetti and skating lessons -- the things that wouldn't last, wouldn't matter, or perhaps would matter, coalescing into some unimaginable shape and gathering meaning inside them?
But the parents' concern was mostly overshadowed by confidence, so why not put the book on a shelf in the den, a high but reachable shelf where the children could get to it if they wanted to, and the chances were good that they would want to, and that no one would be struck dead by it, and life would just go on, as it always had.
Michael Mellow, age thirteen and the second oldest of the Mellow children, was the one to find it. It was a late Friday afternoon in November 1975. He had wandered into the den of the house only moments after his father had stuck the book into the opening on the shelf and then retreated back upstairs. Michael was hunting for his Swingline mini-stapler in order to join together the many sheets of paper that constituted his essay on egg osmosis. Why his little red stapler should have found its way there, into the den, could not be answered. Things levitated and floated from room to room in this house: A stapler, which ordinarily was kept in a boy's desk, might inexplicably turn up open-jawed under the coffee table in the den; a box of Triscuits, empty or full, might make its temporary home on a bathroom counter. Objects moved and shifted and traded places, seemingly as restless as the people who owned them.
Walking through the den, Michael became aware of the presence of something new. It was as though he possessed one of those freakish photographic memories and could feel that something was here that should not have been, that had not, in fact, been here earlier in the day. He experienced a fee fie fo fum moment, smelling human blood -- or more to the point, inhuman blood, something not quite earthly. The stapler, which was nowhere to be found, did not call out to him, but the book did, and he stood blinking and casting his eyes farther and farther upward, onto the shelves, moving among the familiar titles, the comforting ones that together over time defined his family life, just the way the UNICEF wall calendar tacked up inside the broom closet did, or the kitchen drawer filled with nothing but batteries that rolled freely when you opened it.
The Mellows' family life was also defined by a song, which had often been sung on vacations. For years, as they barreled along expressways toward Colonial Williamsburg with its candle-dippers and loom-sitters, or else toward a sleepy, shabby resort in the Poconos called the Roaring Fire Lodge, with everyone and their stuff packed tight into the Volvo station wagon, they would sing it:
"Oh we're the Mellows," they sang, "Some girls and some fellows..." And then they would continue in such a vein, using names of other families from the neighborhood: "We're not the Gambles/'cause we'd be covered with brambles." Or: "We're not the Dreyers/'cause we'd be liars." Or: "We're not the Rinzlers/'cause we'd be..." A stumped silence descended upon the car, while everyone tried to think their way out of this one.
"...Pinzlers!" shrieked Claudia, the youngest, and though this made no sense, the whole family paused for a moment, the older children making derisive groans that were quickly evil-eyed by the parents, and then they all gave in and sang Claudia's rhyme.
Every family in the world had its own corny, pointless song, or a set of ignored books, or a wall calendar, or a rolling battery drawer, all of which resembled, but only in part, those of other families. These details had been introduced into the Mellow household long ago and they were there for good. Here in the den, Michael Mellow leaped onto the couch barefoot, summoned silently, and there, second shelf from the top, he found it.
The book was white-spined, hard-backed, thick, sizzling, with a colophon of a mermaid gracing the spine, hand on hip, bifurcated tail flipped up in insouciance; it was this mermaid herself who seemed to be speaking to him. What she said was this: Pick it up, Michael. Go on. Don't be afraid. You have nothing to fear but fear itself. This last line was one that he had learned in social studies that very week.
Pulling hard, he yanked the book from its vacuum, glanced at his spoils briefly in terror, and then tucked it under his shirt, feeling its glossy surface against his bare, matte skin, forgetting the mini-stapler forever, forgetting the step-by-step progression of egg osmosis. Then he clambered up two flights of stairs and disappeared into the murk of his bedroom for one solid hour.
What he saw in the book was something that, Michael Mellow began to realize during that hour, he could not tolerate alone. He would have to bring Holly in on it, for he often brought her in when something was simply too difficult or perplexing or exciting or opaque to process on his own. She was older, she knew things, she had a worldly, cynical perspective that he lacked. But then he thought, no, it can't be just Holly, for she would think it was strange, even perverse, for her brother to invite her to sit with him and look at this thing. So he would have to invite the two others to look at it too, and it could become an important moment of sibling closeness, an eternal bond. That was what he would do. For if your parents write a book like this, one that's just burst out into the world, there's no way you can read it on your own and not discuss it, just as there's no way you can snub it entirely, act cool and indifferent in its presence. There's no way you can exist in the same house with that book, walking by it in the den while it's up there burning on the shelf, and tell yourself: I'm not ready for this.
Michael sat on the bed in his room, the book open on his lap. Sweat had formed in the notch above his upper lip, and he licked it quickly away, but already this innocent gesture seemed somehow sexual, and so did the taste of human broth in which bodies were basted. His own sweat had taken on a new quality, and so had his tongue, which seemed thick and alive. What would be next, his thumb-pad? The knob of his knee? Was everything that belonged to the body up for grabs and reinterpretation?
A little while later he returned the book to its proper place and said nothing to anyone. But already he had set his plan in motion, and now he waited. The following day, early in the afternoon, Michael said to the others, "They're gone. I heard the car."
It was a wet Saturday, and they were all corralled inside the house. The whole suburb of Wontauket seemed to be in an early hibernation, with children from other families trapped and stunned in their own homes, everyone inexplicably made helpless in the face of rain or a falling thermometer. In summer this town knew how to react, knew how to break out the timed sprinklers and sparklers and domed backyard grills and show a little spirit, but on a day like today it always seemed to plunge into a regional clinical depression. Nothing moved. Shades stayed down. Inside various white or avocado or copper-tiled kitchens, bread was dropped listlessly into the slots of toasters, dogs were fed from cans, newspapers were spread wide in front of faces, forming individual cubicles that neatly divided members of a family sitting together at one oval table. Things that had long been broken would perhaps today be fixed, at least partially. There was initiative, followed by boredom and then abandonment.
Such inertia seemed, at first look, to exist here in the large redwood house on Swarthmore Circle. Out front, leftover rain plopped rhythmically from paper birch trees, rendering the brick walkway leaf-slick, while inside, the Mellow children sat or lay on paisley throw pillows on the floor of their older sister Holly's hot-pink room. Long stretches of time passed during which no one spoke, though within the room, specifically within Michael, there was a covert stirring of energy and direction.
Dashiell, eight years old and the second-youngest of the four, sang to himself a song of his own design, something about an electric can opener that came to life and danced, while the three others played a somnolent round of the game Life, with its elaborate menu of choices: go to college, pick a career, buy a car, get married. (Why did you have to do things all the time? one or another of the children wondered sometimes. What did ...
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