Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision.

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

Wilmerding Shrugged

The political ambitions of Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision.

Book cover

I had trouble deciding whether or not to read Indecision. Sure, it received one of those weird, apparently positive reviews from Michiko Kakutani where she attempts to write in the voice of a literary character, in this case Holden Caulfield. Next, there was Jay McInerney, Mr. Eighties himself, lauding the book on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Yet the whole idea of a generation-defining novel seemed passé. Who could believe in something like that anymore, in our hip-hop, globalized, multiethnic, broadbrand-ready world?

When I did read the book, I discovered that the author, Benjamin Kunkel, doesn't really believe in generation-defining novels, either. But he's written what might once have been called one. Morespecifically, he's written a book that speaks to college-educated males of a certain questing persuasion. I felt a slight embarrassment reading the book in public. It was as if I were rushing a fraternity for sensitive guys, or sending out some lame signal: "Look, he's trying to figure himself out." Eventually, I took off the dust jacket.

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My squeamishness derived from my motives. Mostly I read for pleasure, but, when I am honest with myself, I realize that I am often looking for direction, a philosophy of life. In high school, I fell under the influence of Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Ford, and, forgive me, Ayn Rand. In college, I absorbed an idea that undid my previous easily gathered belief. Namely, that texts, religions, notions of success and the good life were all cultural constructions, the changeable and shaky foundations of our current historical moment. This had a corrosive effect: The constructed nature of everything made it hard to believe in anything.

To put it another way, I once had a straight-laced friend who started listening to the Grateful Dead. When was the moment that he ceased to be "my friend who was into the Dead" and became an actual Deadhead? I couldn't understand how he plunged through the silly arbitrariness of lifestyle choice to actually change his life.

In Indecision, the novel's 28-year-old protagonist, Dwight Wilmerding, expresses a more succinct version of the same thought process:

It wasn't very unusual for me to lie awake at night feeling like a scrap of sociology blown into its designated corner of the world. But to know the clichés are clichés doesn't help you to escape them. You still have to go on experiencing your experience as if no one else has ever done it.

This passage comes early in the book, and it sets the stage for what follows: a novel that is not so much interested in the dramatic irony of being self-aware but in the reconstruction of belief that comes after it.

Irony has become one of those thoroughly annoying words, but let's return to 1991 when the concept in its contemporary, tonal incarnation was fairly fresh. Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X and Richard Linklater's movie Slacker distilled a mostly white, college-educated, upper-middle-class North American sensibility. It was partly a politicized worldview shared by the children of baby boomers who were disgusted with capitalism (the Iran-Contra scandal, El Salvador, Reaganism, Wall Street) but who also saw that the alternatives—communism and socialism—had flopped. The I-word came to represent an attitude of passive engagement at a recession-era moment, typified by the motto of Linklater's movie: "Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy." An ironic stance toward America and its culture provided a space for novelty and pleasure, and, potentially, a sense of purpose.

Reading Indecision provided more than a touch of confusing déjà vu. Here we find a protagonist who is filled with the same types of beliefs that Coupland's characters had started out with, but who was young enough to have graduated during the boom of the '90s. It would seem that today, a group of (again, privileged, college-educated) people afloat on a sea of meritocratic possibility and dazed by 9/11 are finding a similar difficulty engaging with America. Dwight Wilmerding wants to be in earnest. He's searching for genuine gravity in his life, just like Coupland's characters. The plot device that drives the first half of the book is Dwight's decision to fly to Ecuador to see a girl he had a crush on in prep school, and to start taking an experimental drug called Abulinix that will cure his indecisiveness. When he arrives in Ecuador, the girl he came to see turns out to have an extremely attractive Belgian roommate named Brigid. Circumstance throws Dwight and Brigid together on a jungle tour, and, during these chapters, the book's mix of sexual tension and gratuitous philosophical dialogue is less Coupland than, well, Ayn Rand.

What Kunkel nails is the malleable mindset of the college-educated liberal arts major: "In my experience, when a person doesn't know what to do with himself, he will check his e-mail." He also circumvents the most annoying trait of indecisive characters—if your life is such a muddle, then how are you writing this book?—by making the composition of a memoir part of Dwight's drug-assisted decision-making spree. But the most ambitious element of Indecision is the way the novel does not withdraw in disgust, but rather embraces a social justice argument in its final chapters. Completely high on some Ecuadorian drug, Brigid tells Dwight about an imaginary fruit:

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