Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel

19/11/05, The Times

Another year, another Next Big Thing. This time the mantle falls on young American, Benjamin Kunkel, with his first novel Indecision. The novel comes with a rich harvest of ravingly eulogistic press attention in the USA and there doesn’t seem to be a very audible murmur of dissent in that serried rank of worshipping reviewers. I’m afraid I shall begin by declaring my herd-instinct: I, too, shall be joining those hosanna-ing voices, for Indecision is crackling with the lightning and thunder of the Real Thing.

Yet, I have my reservations, too. The book’s slick, ultraclever, liberal-arts-educated, swaggering Manhattan überhipness can so easily (and justifiably) get up people’s noses that to apologise for it would be something like excoriating Shelley for not being Keats. It’s a resiliently youthful book, its target demographic, to mimic its narrator’s speaking style, is the educated, urban white male in his mid- to late-twenties; it is bright as Lucifer and so hip, it hurts. The book has triggered some repressed memory buried deep inside of a terrible pop song from the eighties which goes something like, ‘My future looks so bright, I gotta wear shades.’

How substantial can a coming-of-age novel on something as tritely gossamery and evanescent as a young man’s chronic inability to make decisions be? One person’s tremulous, overcalibrated hyperselfconsciousness is another’s navel-gazing onanism and I see readers turned off by Kunkel’s twenty-something narrator, Dwight Wilmerding, and his anomie. At a Thanksgiving dinner, Dwight is so paralysed by the equality of his love for roast turkey, cranberry sauce, and savoury stuffing that he cannot bring his fork to his mouth till his father does it for him, shouting, ‘Eat! Eat! Dammit, eat!’

While none of us, hopefully, has gone so far down that road, indecision seems to be not just endemic but also a peculiarly zeitgeist-defining malaise and Kunkel is nothing if not the most zeitgeist-friendly of writers (along with Zadie Smith). The novel is narrated by Dwight himself and tells of his acute problem of finding himself locked in the agonizing process of decision-making till his roommate Dan offers him the temporary, if dodgy, Holy Grail of a pill called Abulinix, still in the first phase of clinical trials, which aims to cure abulia, or chronic indecision. Desultorily going out with a beautiful woman called Vaneetha and just about managing to hold down a day-job at the technical support help desk of Pfizer, Dwight suddenly appears to be capable of naming his illness and happily becomes guinea pig. He’s fired from Pfizer and takes off for Ecuador in search of the elusive Natasha, the girl he fancied in high school. But what awaits him there is a whole new sentimental education, a political awakening, and a Forest of Arden-type initiation into adulthood, all rolled into one, and the formidable anti-globalisation warrior, Brigid.

In the seams and interstices of this narrative, Kunkel weaves in, with light-fingered magic, Dwight’s casual recreational drug-taking habit, his inappropriate but abiding love for his sister, Alice, their parents’ late divorce, the relationships that obtain in the Wilmerding nuclear family, and that event which seems to be becoming increasingly the sine qua non of New York writers – 9/11.

It’s not exactly a meaty plot so what is it about Indecision that has had the literary world so excited all over again? It could just be Kunkel’s spitfire, rat-a-tat-tat, fireworks and popping-corks prose. This man writes sentences that reinvent comic writing: his jokes have a hit rate of 11 out of 10 and the style is at once sinuous and relaxed, as if the prose has come out, supple, svelte and elastic, after four decades of intensive yoga. The sheer throwaway coolness of the intelligence is amazing. Who wouldn’t crack up faced with a line such as, ‘Like many men, [my father] was impregnable.’? When his intoxicated father keeps using uncharacteristic expletives in his speech, Dwight observes that the older man ‘looked around with satisfaction at these words in the way that guys in a car with hip-hop blaring will look around while stopped at a light.’

It’s not just the laugh-out-loud quality of these endlessly proliferating jokes and comic observations that mark out Kunkel as a seriously comic writer, but the way his work is aglow and alight with a deeply intelligent comic vision. It belongs to a hallowed tradition of a classical idea of comedy as a mode involved in the laughing off of mortal follies, but Kunkel’s, crucially, is not the laughter of exorcism and dismissal but of an infinitely affectionate acknowledgement. After all, how are we to live if not with our minor and humanising faults?

And like all great comedies, it manages to smuggle in, with sure-footed stealth and subtlety, great themes and questions. How is one to lead a just and fair life without sacrificing oneself in the process? What exactly does the increasing medicalisation of the whole spectrum of human moods and feelings by giant pharmaceuticals hold for the future of the post-Generation X generation? Isn’t the term ‘apolitical life’ a contradiction in terms? Is engagement with the teeming, outside, chaotic communion of human souls our only salvation? Add to this Kunkel’s hard-edged poetry that seems forged in a crucible of observational clarity – ‘…across the street some cast-iron classical pilasters dropped beneath the snoozing Z’s of the fire escapes’; tourists ‘splashing around in the moiré doodlings of the watered light’ of a swimming pool; ‘She sounded like a sick enormous bird whose calls of distress are played at too few rpm’ – and you might have to get out your shades too.