Coin Toss: Fran Duncan on Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision

Please note that this book reaction was written by Fran Duncan.

On the kitchen counter at my workplace rests a seemingly endless stack of shitty books about eye makeup, fairy-tale weddings, and body building. It was there, among that pop publishing detritus, that I found Indecision, Benjamin Kunkel’s (n+1) first novel. It was an advance uncorrected proof, prefaced with a note from Random House VP Daniel Menaker, who touted the book’s voice (“It’s all we look for — listen for — when we read a first novel”) and whose use of the word “autochthonously” had me running for the OED.

After the vocabulary scare, I moved on to the first chapter, where Kunkel introduces his protagonist, the agreeable, optimistic Dwight Wilmerding, a fellow whose strange name could raise eyebrows. But Dwight’s an okay guy — if your kind of guy is a privileged, white twenty-eight-year-old dressed in wrinkled Oxford shirts and worn corduroy pants, lazing away his post-9/11 days in a swirly puff of drugs, nearly sexless love affairs, and philosophical musings. He’s obsessed with the prep school he attended ten years ago, has untoward feelings about his older sister (who also does a brief, vaguely incestuous stint as his therapist), and suffers from the sounds-made-up affliction abulia — an inability to make decisions.

Dwight is funny, smart, and a little swarthy — more space is dedicated to the discussion of his body hair than I’d have preferred — just like prep school boys have always been. He’s a lot like Holden Caulfield a few years down the line: the weird family relations, the city, the existential angst. Plus, like Holden, Dwight has a lot to say. More than you would expect from a guy unable to decide what to do from moment to moment without tossing a coin. In fact, Indecision is a 230-page soliloquy punctuated by smart details that rein in the fuzzy narration, lending it legs to walk around on. On a plane to Quito, where he plans to meet an old prep school crush, Dwight describes the plane’s descent in a parenthetical aside while philosophizing about the very tale he’s telling.

I’m sorry to begin my narrative of important life-changing events so abstractly, especially when the story includes, as well as some sex and many drugs and my final prescription for what the world needs, plenty of specific sense data. (There were babies crying in the cabin as the plane sank down, and the guy in the seat beside me annotating in blue ink, with frantic circlings and passionate underlinings — “STRATEGY,” he wrote, and “IMPORTANT!!!” — an article on Columbia in a business magazine.)

Throughout the book, details are inserted in the midst of Dwight’s prominently voicey musings.

Later we learn that the businessman next to him on the plane is his mirror image. Dwight writes to-do lists on scraps of paper he leaves around his apartment, and they look familiar:


And right from the beginning, we get a little wink and nudge — the narrator commenting upon his narration. Who’s telling this story, anyway?

If Indecision gets a little meta sometimes, it’s because Dwight — or to get crème de la meta, Kunkel — has so much philosophizing to do. The book’s introduction features a Wittgenstein quote. Then Martin Heidegger appears as fictional philosopher Otto Knittel, whose book, Uses of Freedom, Dwight giddily but pretty seriously refers to, like a college student in Philosophy 101. The thesis that Dwight can’t stop thinking about: grounds for the individual’s actions. When he loses his crappy job as a customer service rep at Pfizer (“pfired,” he says), the book is his field guide to long, unemployed days. When his pharmaceutically-inclined roommate offers him a trial of the experimental drug Abulinix, Dwight accepts. If not the tossing of a coin, then the swallowing of a pill.

Dwight is in the Ecuadorian rainforest when the Abulinix appears to kick in. His prep school crush abandons him early on, so he roams the jungles of South America with her friend, the beautiful, Socialist, Belgian-accented Brigid — the latest in a series of semi-glamorous female foils with “deluxe” heads of hair and interesting accents. You can imagine what happens next: two virile twenty-somethings talking heated politics in the sticky jungle while on mind-bending hallucinogens. Yup, meta-sex.

Kunkel’s characterization of Dwight Wilmerding is solid. His narrative voice is unwaveringly strong, and he has a comic’s talent for picking out subtle, humorous details. Despite the hip humor and the sincere but breezy revelations — or perhaps because of them — Dwight’s life and travails will grate on those whose mid-twenties were consumed by job-hunting, checkbook-balancing, and unhappy soul-searching.

Indecision satisfies as a kind of beachy bildungsroman of quarter-century angst, but Dwight’s hapless, happy self-discoveries and syllogisms sometimes feel clichéd and unimportant, just the way it feels to re-read The Catcher in the Rye after a long absence.

Details: Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel, Random House, 256 pp., $21.95.


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