Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 3 2005 6:07 PM

Wilmerding Shrugged

The political ambitions of Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision.

(Continued from Page 1)

When you eat from this fruit then whenever you put your hand on a product, a commodity, an article, then, at the moment of your touch, how this commodity came into your hands becomes plainly evident to you. Now there is no more mystification of labor, no more of a world in which the object arrives by magic—scrubbed, clean, no past, all of its history washed away.

By the end of Indecision, Dwight has declared himself a "democratic socialist" and lives in Bolivia, writing press releases on behalf of exploited workers. I like that Kunkel has written a novel about belief, and it's exciting to see someone in my peer group wrestling with such questions. But let's take a closer look at what, exactly, that belief constitutes.

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For starters, it's striking that Dwight's conversion to socialism takes place in South America. Latin America is a place where socialism has had a long, tangled history and, pace Venezuela, the talk that circulates about the regions these days tends more toward free-trade agreements than Maoist rebels. Kunkel has Dwight nod toward socialism's complications, but he never makes the embrace seem more than a nostalgic pose. It's a moral pleasure to be a socialist (especially if you're living in a capitalist economy): The hard part is to engage socialism as a rigorous, powerful, and fraught ideology. Dwight seems committed to his ethic of anti-consumerism, but what's less clear is how his passion for his cause translates into a viable intellectual framework for improving on the economic policies of our globalized world.

Granted, it's much more difficult to write a novel about a character embracing a belief system than a novel in which they cast beliefs aside. One of the people who successfully pulled it off, actually, is Ayn Rand, whose 1943 novel, The Fountainhead, launched the philosophy of objectivism, complete with campus objectivist clubs. Even so, Rand is hardly a subtle writer; her books are more like effective vessels for ideas. Kunkel is a much more nimble and perceptive novelist than Rand—less didactically monolithic—but beneath all the wit, Indecision suffers, in its second half, from the kind of speechifying one might find in a Rand novel, and I wonder if their writerly aspirations are all that far apart. There are plenty of hints in Indecision that Kunkel believes that a novel can spark a revolution. And, as a writer, he's just at the beginning of his career and influence. Explaining socialism to the postironic, ambivalent, hopeful, generous twentysomethings of 2005, I suppose, is what sequels are for.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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