Disruptive Juxtaposition

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Fiction Review, Benjamin Kunkel's "Indecision"

"Indecision" by Benjamin Kunkel. Random House, 2005. 241 pp. $25.95

Having picked up Indecision on the basis of general good press and the author’s founding father status on n+1 — one of the literary journals with more intellectual cachet than most, at the moment anyway — I dove in and, caught up in that brand of enthusiasm for potentials and theorization that makes me forget major details such as, oh, the author’s name, I began to blog about the hot new novel by one Jonathan Kunkel. As errors go, this lapse seemed both laughable and inexcusable, which doesn’t mean I won’t try. For Benjamin Kunkel’s prose shares with Jonathans Franzen, Lethem, and Safran Foer a blacksmith’s ability to forge out of the dross of American slang images and observations that tend to astound. All of these writers have a knack for the telling or at minimum the gorgeous simile: Kunkel’s narrator Dwight observes while touring Ecuador toward the tail end of his sojourn that “It seemed to me that for many years to come I would feel the light of this particular day like a clean sword going through me” (211). It is to the consumer’s benefit that such illuminating and enjoyable moments come packed into nearly every line.

On the other hand, one could also be forgiven for slotting Kunkel’s novel in between Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis or Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerney, scions of the Brat Pack whose works sum up the spiritual vacuum typically taken as representative of the go-go 80’s by some and by others of the anything-goes, nothing-means-anything Postmodern age. And indeed, Less Than Zero’s affectless hero Clay would make a logical drug buddy for Indecision’s Dwight Wilmerding, our narrator, who finds himself living on New York’s Chambers Street with three other late-twenty-somethings who, while hardly keyed-up professionals themselves, seem to possess drive and ambition Dwight can only imagine having himself. All at once we learn from Dwight’s MD-in-training pal Dan that he suffers from abulia, a chronic inability to make decisions, and that this condition can be cured with the aptly-named and still-in-testing drug Abulinix. As Dwight exults, “The diagnosis and the cure all at once! I understood it didn’t always work that way” (32). Relationships, jobs, imminent plans, and the losses thereof inspire zero concern in young Dwight. He’s a smart-aleck and a little feckless, and can’t quite care: at dinner he handles a call from his boss at Pfizer, to whom he’d just told a whopper of a lie to get out of work:

“What uncle?” Vaneetha asked. “Which watch? Were you just now fired?”
“Um, yes. I was just now fired. From Pfizer. Wow. Pfired! So I’m pfucked!” But the p was silent so no one laughed but me. I lookedat Vaneetha. “Don’t worry about my uncle. He doesn’t exist. So he’s fine” (68).

The wisecracks, the ironic and cool sense of humor, the casual invention of, death of, and callous disregard of a fanciful uncle all dispelled with a shrug—yep, we seem to be deep in Brat Pack territory. The only thing Dwight seems to worry about, sometimes, is his inability to worry about what will happen to him. He’s a young man adrift and can hardly work up the energy to notice his adriftness—that is, until he pops some Abulinix. In a bodega with Dan, Dwight exults “Tomorrow man, I’m going to come in here and I’m going to make a beeline straight to—straight to whatever it is I’ll have decided I want” (38). This pharmaceutical track has been well-worn by some of the last twenty years’ finest writers: in addition to the eeriely real scenes of constant coke lines in Ellis’s Less Than Zero, one thinks of DeLillo’s White Noise, Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and Franzen’s The Corrections, each of which features some new concoction that targets, respectively, the fear of death, the neurological effects of media saturation, and the general difficulty of surviving long-life.

Kunkel, however, takes the motif of a potential panacea for a spiritual lack—both Dwight’s and that of the zeitgeist—and makes it work. A novel thought: rather than investigate the fallacies at the heart of seeking quick fixes in various pharmacopia, Kunkel bestows on Dwight the full, if gradually-developing, benefits of awesome Abulinix. Coasting on the power of the magic capsule, he finds himself ceding to whim and developing unexpected ambition. Just when you think the novel will begin to smartly chart the profound moral error of chemical corrections and insodoing index the postmodernish hipster’s lowly deconstructed, nothing-is-cool,-really city existence, the novel abandons New York for Ecuador, where Dwight has flown to track down Natasha, a prep-school classmate with whom he might be in love and whom he must convince to come to the impending ten-year reunion. It’s to Kunkel’s narrative prowess that this turn isn’t the unbelieveable plot twist it sounds like in summary: Dwight’s recent unemployment and Abulinix-fueled decisiveness conspire to make the switch from New York-based center of centerlessness to Latin American odyssey for meaning not only plausible but possible. Once south of the Equator, Dwight’s decision-making synapses begin to fire, and new possibilities seem to reawaken in him—“My delight in [the Ecuadorian children’s] response, and the fear that soon I would become boring to them… competed so poignantly in my heart that I had one of my more emotional experiences since graduating from Eureka Valley and marching around to ‘Pomp and Circumstance,’ and felt I might cry” (107). Clearly this is not the admission of a Brat Packer. And other possibilities, however hare-brained, occur to Dwight for the first time: he schemes to exploit the anti-hair attribute of a jungle tree until it’s explained to him that this would mirror centuries of exploitation. He learns about the plight of the Ecuadoran laborer. He becomes, to this end, engaged.

To say that this is a risk vastly understates the matter, but in the end Indecision makes the most of its gamble for sincerity. If it turns into a screed against “neoliberal capitalism” and for “democratic socialism,” it does so only from Dwight’s burgeoning and sincere frustration with local and global conditions about which he had only days before knew nothing. If it seems to bang the drum in favor of pharmaceutical fixes, it does so only from a burgeoning and sincere hope that they, drugs, will uncover and focus the better part of our scattered modern nature. It wouldn’t be a mistake to extrapolate this Dwightish frustration to a polemic against certain trends of literature over the previous three or four decades. Indecision, and the novels and poems being written out there in a kindred spirit, would seem to proclaim the fading-away of the postmodern age in favor of a post-postmodern one. It is a practical call-to-arms, if not for a mass movement on behalf of impoverished work forces in faraway lands then at least for a mass movement on behalf of standing for something—for doing some homework and taking a stand on something. It hardly matters what so long as you yourself, as Dwight does, believe it.