A Hero for Our Time

A Hero for Our Time

Critics have been trumpeting Benjamin Kunkel as the voice of his generation. But his first novel, Indecision, about a 28-year-old empty vessel, is little more than an empty vessel itself.


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.

It’s impossible to fathom why Kunkel introduces the miracle drug, and then renders it utterly beside the point. The novel is built around the idea of Abulinix as the catalyst for all of Dwight’s growth, but Kunkel’s treatment of the drug, and its effects within Dwight, turns out to be so casual, so lacking in rigor, that the entire conceit falls to pieces. Most of Dwight’s big decisions are made for him before the drug can even take effect. Dwight is fired from his crappy tech job before he can decide whether or not to quit. And his girlfriend dumps herself in due course when Dwight decamps New York not for the woods of Vermont but the jungles of Ecuador. How he manages to get himself to Ecuador is still a little hard to explain. The drugs haven’t kicked in, so he has to flip a coin–five times. Still, the purchase of a plane ticket, with its multitude of destinations, departure times and seat assignments, should give Dwight a massive brain hemorrhage, but Kunkel just tosses it off via parenthesis. This sort of sloppiness eventually overwhelms the novel.

Critics fell all over themselves to praise Indecision as a brilliant portrait of Dwight’s generation, but the novel is far more convincing when it simply tells the story of Dwight’s family. About the Wilmerdings who made him, Dwight remarks:

What solitary people my family were! It amazed me that two of its members had ever gotten together to produce the others. But then solitary people pretending not to be–that must be how many families start up, and how the race of the lonely has grown so numerous.

Instead of hugging and kissing one another, the four Wilmerdings used to deposit hugs and kisses and filial affection on their sad, cowlicky golden retriever (now gone)–as if a pet were a joint savings account. Dwight’s parents have divorced, and the various Wilmerdings are not just solitary but all alone. Kunkel oddly seems happier to keep Dwight alone: In a novel that again and again imagines the most radical and the most hopeful possibilities of empathy, Kunkel still makes sure to protect his hero from ever having to confront the reality and gravity of other individuals.

Nonetheless, Dwight can’t quite keep a healthy distance from his sister, Alice, a radical anthropologist. A visit to her room tells us everything we need to know about her. There’s the tiny twin bed with its “pleasant and reassuringly girlish lavender bedspread,” where she has been known to entertain both boys and girls. Above the bed: the stuffed head of an African ibex that Alice, a vegetarian, bagged on her last father-daughter hunting trip. Across from the dead head: an East German propaganda poster that demonstrates the proper use of giant red hammers on capitalist fingers. By these points–bed, taxidermy, poster–Alice is triangulated and surveyed like a plot of land. And in this room, Dwight lies down on her bed as if it were a doctor’s couch and in her PJs she plays shrink, pro bono, while puffing theatrically on a “big fat Freudian cigar.” But her psychology is less The Interpretation of Dreams and more Das Kapital. Diagnoses Alice: “Part of it is that we belong to a social class and a generation where our parents live too long and remain too economically powerful.” Asks Dwight: “Is this going to be Communist therapy?”

Alice has gone reddish, having outlived the cold war and outgrown the dog collars and Izod polos of her “punk WASP bitch” phase. Still, she assures their father that when the revolution comes she will not (a) stand him up against the wall and shoot him personally, or (b) encourage any of her comrades to stand him up against the wall and shoot him.

“Come on, Alice,” says Dad instead of thanks, “Show some spine. A diffident revolutionary is no good. I’m a commodities trader. If you don’t kill me, who will you?” Which makes her cry.

Mr. Wilmerding is absent-minded enough to lose cars, his fortune, his children and his wife. After golf and a great deal of scotch, he discourses on the long line of cynics from himself back to Diogenes, shouts obscure advice and chucks office supplies straight at Dwight’s head. He’s the father Odysseus probably was whenever he was stuck on land and at home. And then, there’s the matter of their mother, who, between the cheery devout Episcopalianism and the sudden vegetarianism, may or may not have become a nun.

But Dwight skips town before we find out. He switches hemispheres in search of his old prep school crush Natasha, but is instead presented with Brigid, the beautiful Belgian-Argentine anthropologist. Brigid reminds him, and us, of his sister, but the resemblance only goes so far. Brigid, for instance, reacts significantly better when he goes in for a kiss. This is good news for Dwight, but bad news for the rest of us. The special promise and antic, affecting comedy of Indecision‘s opening chapters do not survive Dwight’s not-so-perilous journey through the jungle into Brigid’s arms. As Dwight evolves, the novel devolves.

Once Dwight escapes from New York, his surroundings grow more exotic but more superficial. His challenges get fewer and duller, and the novel is at a loss to introduce characters as difficult and dynamic as the Wilmerdings. Among the Ecuadoreans, there aren’t even any real speaking parts, and poor Brigid is hardly more than a stalking horse for Alice. This is another glaring example of a kind of cowardice that mars the novel. The vanishing of the Wilmerdings might clear the way for Dwight to transform, but it also renders that transformation totally illegitimate. Our families don’t just precede us in the fossil record; they are the most irreducible facts of who we are, and who we feel, too often, forced to be. Rather than reckon with his origins, and the origins of his indecision, the all-new, all-decisive Dwight just writes off his family in a couple of slapdash, too-glib e-mails from Ecuador; if they respond to him, we do not read it or hear about it. In keeping them silent, Kunkel has failed his own work.

Nietzsche once wrote, against Wagner, “I believe that artists often do not know what they can do best: they are too vain. They are intent on something prouder than these small plants seem to be which grow on their soil.” Whether it’s ambition or pride, Kunkel seems unable to recognize that Indecision is at its funniest and most touching in its depiction of Dwight’s family; it’s a tremendous letdown when, about halfway through the novel, all the other troublesome, colorful, loud Wilmerdings are “disappeared” like dissidents. Haven’t we read enough novels about young men shipping out to sea, rafting down the river, driving cross-country, playing hooky, running off? But Dwight still has to strap on a backpack and see South America like Che Guevara. It’s probably not fair of me to be disappointed that Kunkel wrote his own book and not The Corrections, or The Oresteia. But he’s a better novelist than he is a tour guide, and had Dwight stayed home, Kunkel might have given us an epic, or a poem.

But we stay worried about the Wilmerdings even after Kunkel has hustled them offstage. Let’s forget, for the moment, Mom’s celibacy and Dad’s drinking. The most pressing issue in the Wilmerding clan is the kiss Dwight plants on Alice’s lips. That he wasn’t going to slip her the tongue really isn’t any excuse, or consolation. That it’s the morning after September 11 makes the whole thing that much worse. For the record, the only brothers who ever really want to fuck their sisters are found in Faulkner novels, The Aristocrats and Greek myths, when the dating pool was much smaller. It’s a literary problem, not an actual one. At least Kunkel gives Alice an ingeniously simple and semi-heartbreaking theory of why Dwight wants to keep it in the family. “Look, the trouble is not that you and I or any siblings actually want to fuck one another. The trouble is that we don’t–everything would be so easy if we did,” opines Alice. “I’m the one girl you actually got to know in the right way. It was gradual, it was inevitable–obviously we didn’t have any choice in the matter.” Alice says all this before the kiss. After it, she points Dwight out the door and says, “What do you think it means to be a family? We’re the people we never get over. Now go!”

Dwight doesn’t have to get over her, because Kunkel, like a clever tax attorney, exploits for his hero a heretofore unexplored loophole in the incest taboo. In a surprise twist, Dwight’s whole trip to Ecuador turns out to be a blind date, elaborately staged. Sister Alice and doppelgänger Brigid (secretly grad school colleagues) have conspired to insure that Dwight falls for the one whose genes don’t match his. This is indefensible and cheap: The novel sanctions his incestuous desire rather than forcing him to confront, outgrow or even apologize for it. And it’s yet another decision that Dwight takes credit for, without having actually made it. In Indecision, resolutions and epiphanies are not so much earned as given away like gifts to a spoiled child.

So we have every reason to doubt Dwight’s last-second conversion to a particularly swashbuckling strain of democratic socialism–not least of all because it takes place mid-orgasm, mid-drug trip. Che himself might have skipped the leper colonies if he’d known that one could become a socialist merely by drinking the boiled juice of a cactus and then humping your new girlfriend in the jungle like Adam and Eve, post-apple. But it would be a stretch to say that Dwight has decided to become anything. Brigid’s enthusiastic beliefs have just bled into him, in the same way that an airplane flight saturates him with nowhereness. It’s just more osmosis. After he’s been thoroughly socialized, Dwight will dedicate his life to publicizing the plight of Bolivian coca farmers, about whom the “news is not great.” But every night Dwight stays up late and, underneath the Southern Hemisphere’s superabundance of stars, writes the book in our hands. Despite the government-sanctioned beating of the farmers and the US-funded burning of their farms, Dwight is still far more focused on the poverty and oppression inside himself. His socialism is never a coherent ideology or a concrete political solution. It’s just another form of self-help.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge Dwight his happy ending. I’m glad he didn’t end up stopped like a watch at the bottom of a river or run through with a poisoned rapier, having already poisoned or run through everybody else. But it’s impossible not to feel let down when the novel gets sillier and sloppier the deeper into the rainforest it goes, until it becomes like some lost Hope and Crosby comedy–Road to Ecuador. Dwight evolves over the course of Indecision from an entirely empty vessel to an empty vessel with political platitudes to embrace and a substitute sister to fuck. The rest of us, in our indecision, will have to look elsewhere, in other books or in ourselves, to find out how to make meaningful, creative, passionate choices. Our lives will be hard, will need to be worked at, where Dwight’s will continue to be easy, and easily skated through. Benjamin Kunkel may become a serious novelist, but Indecision is not a serious novel.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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