Men, Women and Children
By Chad Kultgen
Harper Perennial, 320 pages, $17
AFTER reading the opening sentence of American provocateur Chad Kultgen's third novel (which reads: "Don Truby thought about Kelly Ripa's anus"), you might expect a desperate need on the part of the author to be transgressive, to express his contempt equally for his characters and his readers, and to suffuse his writing with sub-Bret Easton Ellis social satire.
And you'd be right.
A few pages into his story, which focuses on a group of Grade 8 students and their damaged families, you'd realize that there's more to the book.
There's also smugness, as in this sentence, referring to the clueless parents of an adolescent girl named Brandy: "They then settled in to watch a syndicated episode of According to Jim, which was their favourite show."
Elsewhere people are characterized just as facilely as watchers of Two and a Half Men, Dancing With the Stars and Oprah or people who like to eat at the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain. In other words, these are mere two-legged sheep grazing on American junk culture. Unlike novelists who have the courage to use the word "anus" in their first sentences.
Like Ellis (another West Coast literary bad boy), Kultgen writes with a kind of artlessness, which is probably meant to convey the vacant lives of his characters, but which more effectively conveys his, well, lack of art.
His narrative runs along the surface, telling the reader what his characters are doing and what they are thinking, but never giving us their perceptions or reflections, resulting in a Mr. Spock prose style. Here, for example, is a character looking at Internet porn: "Don found these images to be satisfying and arousing."
This presumably is his way of saying that his characters do not have inner lives.
The one character who provides a kind of moral centre to the novel is a star linebacker who quits the junior high football team after discovering the works of Noam Chomsky (during the summer after Grade 7!) and realizing that "the things most people invested time and energy in were systems of control designed by those who sought to manipulate the general population."
So, yes, if you ever thought that combining Less Than Zero with Manufacturing Consent would make a bad novel, you called that right.
Ultimately, Kultgen has another big point to make: the kids at Goodrich (Good and Rich: oh, to be so clever) Junior High are horribly messed up because of their parents. And by the way, it's usually the mother who's most to blame.
Extreme porn connoisseur Chris Truby is the son of the unpleasant Don of the Kelly Ripa fixation, whose own nastiness stems in part from his wife's declining interest in sex.
Dawn Clint is a failed Hollywood actress who arranges semi-pornographic photo shoots for her daughter Hannah's website, leading to Hannah's sexual aggressiveness.
Depressed Warcraft addict Tim is in shock after his mother's departure for a new life in California. Anorexic Allison has the misfortune to have an overweight mother who works in a pie shop (not perhaps the most traumatic childhood, but you make do with what you've got).
So, bottom line: if you're looking for words strung together to create one-dimensional characters and unpleasant situations leading to an observation that is both banal and arguably misogynistic, Chad's your man.
Winnipeg playwright Bob Armstrong is the author of the comic novel Dadolescence, coming this fall from Turnstone Press.