Book Review: The Average American Marriage
by Chad Kultgen
Harper Perennial, 2013
It’s a good rule of thumb when dealing with contemporary fiction: polarization merits investigation. A chorus of same-ballpark estimations of a novel as “good” might mean that novel is good, but they certainly mean that novel is safe. A reader would be hard-pressed to find a single review of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall that wasn’t ecstatic, for example, and such reviews are accurate – the book is brilliant. And the consensus, by its very accuracy, exempts the reader from one of his ordinary responsibilities – assessment. He can relax into Wolf Hall with complete trust and let its brilliance work its full magic. No vigilance is required.
Not so a work that sparks equal parts ecstasy and outrage. If two intelligent, open-minded readers can sample the same book and come away with reactions that aren’t just different in degree but are completely opposite – “it was incredible, one of the best books I’ve ever read,” and “it was vile, every copy should be burned” – something is going on that never happens in a Louis Auchincloss novel.
Usually, the fuss turns out to be fairly shallow. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho might have provoked a few interns at Vintage Books to resign in protest, but it’s a limp, disorganized thing – remove it from the heat of its controversy and it shrivels immediately. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses famously brought an insane fatwa down on his head, but the uproar over its alleged religious provocations cleanly missed the fact that it’s one of Rushdie’s weakest books. Even the readers who profess to loving E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey tend to sidestep it’s controversy by mocking their own choice in the same breath. Usually, that is, the investigation is disappointing.
There are few better words for the novels of Chad Kultgen than “polarizing.” His 2007 novel The Average American Male took readers on a squirm-inducing tour of the barren, horny inner landscape of its twenty-something unnamed narrator as he ping-pongs from lust to boredom to intoxication and back. The explicit details on virtually every page filled some readers with moral indignation and other readers with condescending contempt – and the fact that the main character neither grows nor changes, that he stumbles listlessly into a loveless marriage and exits the book as vapid and self-absorbed as he entered it only sharpened the polarization. The book became a phenomenon and sold like hotcakes, in large part because so many prominent critics considered it a harbinger of the Apocalypse.
Easily the most annoying aspect of The Average American Male was the undeniable intelligence of the writing. It was an easy book to typecast but a difficult one to dismiss.
That unnamed narrator returns in Kultgen’s new novel The Average American Marriage; he’s married to Alyna and they have a batch of adorable kids, and he’s fantasizing about his new office intern Holly doing a long list of things that can’t be properly mentioned in a book review (Kultgen is about as tricky to excerpt as Dennis Cooper, for exactly the same reasons). Of course the narrator doesn’t just fantasize – the novel is hardly two pages old before he’s sleeping with Holly and hiding it from Alyna, who’s flinty and good-natured and who soon finds out anyway, prompting a typically half-hearted apology from her husband:
Alyna says, “Is that an apology?”
I say, “Well, yeah.”
Alyna says, “Well, it’s not accepted. You didn’t just make a mistake. You’re having an affair.”
I say, “Come on. It’s not an affair.”
Alyna says, “You’re fucking the same girl multiple times outside of your marriage. That’s the definition of an affair, you stupid fucking asshole.” In this moment I start to wonder why she wanted to do this in a public place. Maybe she thought it would keep he from crying, but I think her unbridled anger is serving that function. She says, “There was a time in this when I would have done anything for you, when I trusted you beyond anyone I ever thought I could trust. We had something really good.”
She throws him out of their home when she finds erotic text messages and pictures on his phone, and despite all the low-key rage we’ve seen in his internal diatribes against her and the constrictions of their marriage, he doesn’t need to be in a bland hotel room long before his reflexive cynicism chips a bit:
It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve slept in a bed alone. I miss the noises of my house. The ticking of the refrigerator, the low hum of the air conditioner, the slight crackle of the baby monitor that we still keep in the kids’ room. I close my eyes and miss all the shit that annoyed me about sleeping with Alyna. I miss the way she would put her cold feet on my legs to warm them. I miss the way she would exhale so hard through her nose as she slept that it would feel like she was poking me with an index finger. I miss the way she would twitch slightly when she would fall asleep. I miss the way her hair would get in my face when she’d force me to spoon her. I miss the way her aging, out-of-shape body felt against my aging, out-of-shape body. I miss my wife.
There are no happy endings in Chad Kultgen’s fiction. People screw up their lives and seldom do more than compromise (and lie) their way back to some approximation of what they lost. Underneath the attention-getting cuss words and prurience, there’s a disturbingly recognizable portrait of 21st century anomie being painted in these books. There’s a scene at the very end of The Average American Marriage that’s as quick and bleak as anything you’ll read all year. And despite the sometimes cavalier attitude the author adopts in interviews, it takes a great deal of precise control to produce prose at once so reckless and so chiselled. Kultgen’s narrator is callow and brutally self-centered, but he’s not stupid; Kultgen’s rhetoric is crass and often vile, but it’s not sloppy. The Average American Marriage is not a great book, but it’s a relentlessly involving one. No current novelist is writing like this – and polarizing or not, that makes it worth your time.