A Conversation with Ben Kunkel
1. Within the bounds of privacy, what's the hardest decision you've ever had to make, and why was it so hard?
I don’t want to talk too much about myself. In Dwight’s case, I think his indecisiveness (if that’s ultimately the best term: the whole thing may be a bit of a red herring) has to do with a sort of inability to recognize his desires. A hard decision often has to do with figuring out whether you should or shouldn’t do the thing you want. Dwight usually isn’t even that far along.
2. Dwight Wilmerding , the hairy hero of Indecision, runs across a naturally occurring botanical depilatory in the rain forest in South America and thinks about its potential as a commercial product, until Brigid points out the ethical problems with this kind of venture. I'm just wondering why you decided to make Dwight hairy, and also if you hope that your book will change your readers' minds or open their eyes about socioeconomic matters like these?
Dwight’s fairly implausible hairiness is a symbol of something, so it’s probably best that I don’t know exactly of what. I associate his hairiness with dogs (which Dwight loves), spiders (which Dwight hates), and simply with Dwight’s own strangeness to himself. He’s at once very fair and very hairy–and who’s like that?
Dwight’s short-lived entrepreneurial scheme prompts a lecture from Brigid on what used to be called “primitive accumulation” and what, now that Marxists think primitive accumulation never ends, a lot of them currently call accumulation by dispossession. Maybe some readers will think about this stuff for the first time in reading this chapter; their naïveté will overlap with Dwight’s. That was one idea of mine. But for other people I think the chapter might just serve as a reminder of what we can never hold in our minds for very long: the scale of exploitation in our world. Dwight sees this for the first time (or tells himself he does), which may allow other people to see it again.
3. Dwight is capable of a kind of instant regret for even the smallest choices he makes and a sort of chronic parser of his own behavior. Do you think this tendency is an exaggeration of the way we all think about our actions, or did you mean this guy to be qualitatively different?
Is it hedging too much to say both? You know what the say about psychoanalysis: only the exaggerations are true. I guess I meant Dwight to be a true exaggeration.
4. + 5. What the greatest source of satisfaction you've gotten from the response--from friends and strangers--to Indecision? The greatest disappointment?
The most gratifying response to the book came from a woman at Barnes & Noble who stood up after I’d read and asked me what it was like to be such a genius. The most disappointing response came from the clerk at Barnes & Noble who told me the same woman asks the same question of every author who comes to read.
6. The way you describe Dwight's airplane flight is not only funny but distinctive, but I'm not sure why I think that. Can you explain what it is about this enduringly odd way of travel you're trying to convey?
I’ve always thought of air travel–at least in big jets–as a very slow form of teleportation. In a small plane, you see the ground you’re passing over, as of course you do in a car, a train. In a boat you see the sea. In a big jet the relationship between one place and the next is severed–as if you’d stepped into a box in Kansas, and stepped out of it in Oz, or in the future. Or in Ecuador. Or all three.
7. Can you talk a little about the tension between the comic and serious aspects of this novel, and which you wish to be its final effect?
I’m sure no one would read “Indecision” and think of E.M. Forster. But I always admired his way of treating his characters as if they were friends: he found them ridiculous, it seemed, and also took their fates seriously. And I wanted the reader to feel that way about Dwight and the other characters, and also for Dwight to feel like that about himself. Life happens to fools; life is serious; hence fools are serious, and the serious foolish. Something like that.
8. Indecision has a pharmaceutical leitmotif--well maybe even a heavimotif. Dwight's transformation appears to be at least partially enabled by a kind of head trip. Did you mean readers to think it was essential to his change of heart?
Well, maybe best not to talk too much about the drug when a lot of people won’t know exactly what it does and doesn’t do in the end. I would say, though, that the idea of the drug is an idea of circumventing the will, and Dwight in his dimness at least recognizes that his problems of the will probably aren’t to be solved by more and better application of the will. He needs desire, insight, not willing.
9. Women. Indecision appears to be saying that men and women are importantly, undeniably, and irretrievably different from men, in a way that may have something to do with manipulation and moral superiority. Right or wrong?
Jeez. I don’t know. I once gave an interview on this subject, more or less, and have regretted it ever since. No comment.
10. What's next for you? Will we ever see Dwight again?
I’ve got two big projects I’m working on; and then there’s always n+1. I don’t know if Dwight will come back. How would he speak as an older person? There are no plans for his return. But Butch Cassidy apparently reappeared in the U.S. after fleeing the law to Patagonia and then Bolivia. Maybe we haven’t seen the last of Dwight either.