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THE AGONY OF THEIR ECSTASY

Whatever embarrassment our parents may have inflicted on us as children, not much can compare to what Paul and Roz Mellow did to their kids.

They wrote a joy-of-sex book. Together. Accompanied by lots of graphic, how-to illustrations of themselves. Then they went around the country, making themselves media stars as the married co-authors of the bestseller, "Pleasuring: One Couple's Journey to Fulfillment."

Meanwhile, their four children, ages six to 15, went on with their lives, enduring varying amounts of emotional scarring, not to mention flat-out mortification.

This is the premise of Meg Wolitzer's wonderful, funny, and memorable new novel, which confirms her status as a novelist likely to keep you up all night reading.

Wolitzer is on a roll. Her last novel, "The Wife," was also smart and knowing about marriage, gender differences, and literary society. Combining the easy charms of chicklit and the gravitas of literary fiction, it has understandably become a darling of book clubs throughout the land.

Her latest, "The Position" adds a soupcon of humor and originality to that recipe, as it takes up the rich subjects of parent-child relationships and the strange folkways of America in the 1970s.

Recall that New Journalist Tom Wolfe aptly dubbed a whole nation of people like Paul and Roz Mellow (an inspired name) the "Me Generation." The tag still fits, with all its suggestions of self-obsession and the search for an elusive kind of transcendental fulfillment.

Boomers, prepare to look in the mirror.

The book's title, by the way, is a reference to a Mellow-invented, though Kama Sutra-derived, sexual posture depicted in their book. Called "Electric Forgiveness," it requires considerable flexibility, acrobatic skill and real commitment. One imagines it being negotiated by the light of a lava lamp with a strong whiff of patchouli in the air.

Wolitzer tracks the four Mellow children -- whom we first meet in the leafy suburbs of Long Island -- as more or less dysfunctional adults. Holly is drug-addled and nearly lost to her family; Mike is a Type A workaholic with a social conscience; Claudia a chronic underachiever full of self-loathing; Dashiell is a gay Republican, with all the inner conflicts that may suggest.

All are still carrying the baggage of their parents' foray into well-documented ecstasy, and Wolitzer's chapters tell the story from each of their perspectives.

She also follows Paul and Roz who, although once utterly enthralled with each other, have each moved on to subsequent marriages. Roz's chosen mate, it turns out, is the long-haired, introspective artist who, as illustrator of "Pleasuring," spent long hours drawing Paul and Roz cavorting, and fell in love with Roz from behind his sketchbook.

Wolitzer is wise and observant about all these relationships, but she is especially strong -- even lyrical -- on parenthood, especially as it intersects with that '70s panacea known as divorce:

Just look at those grown-up children, lumbering around the earth with their freight of sadness and detachment. What babies they were, those children, all children, for no one forgets the early pleasure of seeing two parents together; no one forgets the incomprehensible safety and symmetry of that image.

As a portrait of a dysfunctional American family, traced over recent decades, "The Position" inevitably evokes comparisons with Jonathan Franzen's celebrated "The Corrections." This much is certain: Wolitzer's book is a whole lot shorter.

Is it also less deep, less literary, less a modern classic? Possibly. But that's a high standard, and "The Position" has its own virtues: economy, charm, understated elegance, and a poignancy that is both sweet and sad.

The Position

By Meg Wolitzer

Scribner

307 pages, $24

Margaret Sullivan is the editor of The News.

e-mail: editor@buffnews.com