A Hero for Our Time
Benjamin Kunkel's debut novel, Indecision, is the comedy of a boy who couldn't make up his mind. Of course, Dwight B. Wilmerding isn't the first 28-year-old to lie awake all night wondering if he should quit his job, dump his girlfriend and move to Vermont to live amid the dumb comfort of dogs and the wisdom of books. But Dwight can't decide anything--not even the smallest thing. In order to choose between two basically identical oxford shirts, he has to close his eyes and point; a coin flip is required whenever he makes or breaks plans; the lucky numbers in his horoscope help him navigate menus. But forget Thanksgiving. The embarrassment of food options usually renders him catatonic. A clean fork wobbles in his hand like the needle of a broken compass. Dwight just sits there and drools.
Book reviewers, on the other hand, have had no trouble making up their minds about Indecision. The Gray Lady fawned over Kunkel, 32, like a loving grandmother. In the daily New York Times, Michiko Kakutani actually reviewed Indecision from the point of view of Holden Caulfield ("Old Dwight's book really knocked me out"). That weekend, the Times Book Review published a front-page rave by 1980s wunderkind Jay McInerney--as if the title of Spokesman for a Generation could be handed down like the Miss America crown. Two weeks later, the Book Review published Kunkel's 4,000-word essay about novelists and terrorists on the same Sunday that the Times Magazine ran an adoring profile of Kunkel and the other founding editors of the literary magazine n+1. Kunkel was identified as "the hot young white male writer of the moment." By favorably comparing Dwight and Holden, n+1 and the Partisan Review, Kunkel and Goethe, Kunkel and Joyce, these Times pieces worked hard to establish the new author's pedigree, his literary bona fides, like a royal genealogist rubber-stamping the pure bloodlines of a new prince. Each article was accompanied by a photo of Kunkel smiling shyly, or brooding prettily.
"Writers rightly prefer intelligent hostility to stupid praise," daydreams critic James Wood in the current issue of n+1. We are already familiar with the victims of stupid praise. Especially talented, especially lucky or especially well-publicized writers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith were cooed over, profiled, proclaimed originals, made stars. Surely, these young authors--all of them, like Kunkel, with talents worth developing--would have benefited more from intelligent and productive hostility than from the advertising campaigns they were given by critics. Predictably, their follow-ups were greeted with idiotic hostility. This cycle of hype and backlash unquestionably fails writers. Faulkner wrote three not-great books before he wrote The Sound and the Fury; these days he'd only have gotten to write the first two. But don't worry too much about Kunkel. Indecision's film rights were sold for seven figures to producer Scott Rudin, who's also working on movie adaptations of The Corrections and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
But Dwight, Kunkel's indecisive hero, would be more interesting as the subject of a medical study than of a movie, or a novel. In Dwight, Kunkel diagnoses an indecisiveness that is practically an immune-deficiency disorder. "To myself I always seemed totally steeped in my environment, or dyed in local color," Dwight reflects on an airplane in mid-flight, "and now because in transit I felt suffused with utter nowhereness, and therefore like I might turn out to be anyone at all." His failure of will has become a radical failure of self. It's not just that he can't make up his mind--his mind isn't yet made. Nor is it that he can't decide between one thing and the other (although he can't)--it's that he's stuck in a more or less permanent state of in-between-ness. As one ex-girlfriend tells him after they split, "You may wonder how I'm feeling. But you're not coherent enough that I feel anything much." Over the course of Indecision, we get to watch Dwight slowly cohere--well, as much as he's ever going to. Kunkel has interpreted the task of the Bildungsroman, the novel of formation, as literally as a strict constructionist reading the Constitution. It's a clever maneuver, and very funny when it works. Indecision really is the novel of Dwight's formation--not just his coming-of-age but his actual coming together.
How will this Humpty Dumpty put himself together? For starters, Kunkel's hero devises to-decide lists, in the hope that list-making will help him map some shape onto his life. But this gets him nowhere. Then one night Dwight's roommate, a spectral sardonic doctor, hands him Abulinix, a blue-and-white pill that promises to cure his chronic indecision, his abulia. In interviews, Kunkel admits that Abulinix was inspired by the experimental drug in Don DeLillo's White Noise, which assuaged the fear of death. But White Noise was published one year before Prozac. Two decades later, it no longer seems particularly worrying or particularly wondrous that depressed adults should seek to correct their chemistry; and the drugs themselves have become too ordinary for another one to seem like a miracle. A parable of prescription drugs nowadays just seems outdated, like an invitation that arrives after the party.