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March 14, 2005

Sex in the Seventies

by Ron Hogan

I took advantage of the great weather Saturday afternoon to take the long walk from the subway to the Brooklyn Public Library to see Lisa Dierbeck talk about One Pill Makes You Smaller with one of the cultural beacons of New York radio, Leonard Lopate. They discussed the process behind writing the novel, a dark story of the sexual awakening of an eleven-year-old who develops physically much earlier than most young girls and falls prey to J.D., a man described in one review (passed on by Lopate) as "one of the most despicable characters in contemporary literature." But Dierbeck was careful to point out that, despite his act of statutory rape against Alice, she does find things to like about the character, who she described as emblematic of the "transgressive spirit" of the decade, and that she prefers ambiguous characters to outright heroes and villains. She also recalled that the manuscript was "roundly rejected"by several publishers when she sent it out; even those editors who found it "wonderfully written" felt "frightened by the material." (In the long run, though, it took only a few weeks for the novel to find a home at FSG and, now, Picador.) And, yes, the congruence of the title, Alice's name, and the sexual themes is not accidental; allusions to Balthus, Salinger, and Mann also weave their way in and around the story.

Meg Wolitzer's The Position takes on the sexual atmosphere of the 1970s from a different angle, imagining the emotional fallout from Pleasuring, a bestselling sex manual filled with line drawings of a man and woman engaged in numerous forms of lovemaking--a man and a woman the four Mellow children immediately recognize as their parents. The section from the novel Wolitzer read at KGB last night, however, actually stretched back to the late 1950s, to explore how that couple first met, when he was in training to be a psychoanalyst and she walked into the clinic as his patient. It's a self-contained anecdote that still neatly captures the combination of emotional empathy and humor Wolitzer brings to the story--because, after all, she knows what it's like to grow up with parents who write about sex.

She shared the KGB spotlight with Lauren Sanders, who read a different section of With or Without You than the one I saw her read last month. This time around, her narrator was already in prison after having murdered the actress with whom she was obsessed, and is enduring a visit from her mother (made even more difficult by a certain masochistic punishment devised by her current sexual partner out of a carrot, two condoms, and a bit of dental floss; your imagination can fill in the rest to keep this screen safe for work).

I was also pleasantly surprised to run into Libby Schmais, who wrote The Perfect Elizabeth and The Essential Charlotte, and hear about the new novel she's finishing; I also spotted Felicia Sullivan in the back of the bar and chatted with her briefly afterwards. Her own KGB reading series is back on Tuesday nights--tomorrow (3/15) she'll introduce Wendy Shanker and Ayun Halliday.

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