Synopses & Reviews
Benjamin Kunkel's brilliantly comic debut novel concerns one of the central maladies of our time a pathological indecision that turns abundance into an affliction and opportunity into a curse.
Dwight B. Wilmerding is only twenty-eight, but he's having a midlife crisis. Of course, living a dissolute, dorm like existence in a tiny apartment and working in tech support at the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer are not especially conducive to wisdom.
And a few sessions of psychoanalysis conducted by his sister have distinctly failed to help with his biggest problem: a chronic inability to make up his mind.
Encouraged by one of his roommates to try an experimental pharmaceutical meant to banish indecision, Dwight jumps at the chance (not without some meditation on the hazards of jumping) and swallows the first fateful pill. And when all at once he is pfired from Pfizer and invited to a rendezvous in exotic Ecuador with the girl of his long-ago prep-school dreams, he finds himself on the brink of a new life.
The trouble well, one of the troubles is that Dwight can't decide if the pills are working. Deep in the jungles of the Amazon, in the foreign country of a changed outlook, his would-be romantic escape becomes a hilarious journey into unbidden responsibility and unwelcome knowledge.
How to affirm happiness without living in constant denial of the ways of the world? How to commit, and to what? At once funny and poignant, gentle and outrageous, finely intelligent and proudly silly, Indecision rings with a voice of great energy and originality, while its deeper inquiries reflect the concerns and style of a generation.
"Dwight Wilmerding, the vacillating, down-market prepster protagonist of Kunkel's debut novel, gets fired from his low-level job at Pfizer and, with the lease running out on his hive-like Chambers Street boys-club apartment, lights out for Quito, Ecuador, where high school flame Natasha is holed up. Before this momentous undertaking, Dwight has been afflicted with chronic postcollegiate indecision, particularly in relationships: should he pursue a life with his quasi-girlfriend, Vaneetha? Start up again with Natasha? And what about his weird thing for his sister, Alice? As luck would have it, one of his roommates is a med student who turns Dwight on to Abulinix, an experimental new treatment for chronic indecision, which makes his South American jaunt very eventful indeed. A subtheme on the post-politicality of post-9/11 20-somethings gives the book some bite and surfaces most conspicuously in the form of Brigid, the Euroactivist who, along with the drug, brings Dwight clarity, and even hope. Annoying but accomplished, this entertaining book has screenplay written all over it, from the hot Dutch Natasha to the shambling cute Dwight not to mention Harvard-educated, New York literati Kunkel himself. (Sept. 6)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"If Kunkel ultimately seems to want to move beyond irony and youthful nihilism...he certainly embraces and rides the hell out of them in the beginning, with deeply satisfying results." New York Times
"Here's what Indecision gives you: sustained social and intellectual comedy, possibly the last but certainly the funniest Superfluous Man in modern literature, drive-by satire, plus detailed set-piece send-ups of Young Adult colgrads at work and play....And there's a surprising ending. Benjamin Kunkel, welcome!" Norman Rush, author of Mating
"Kunkel may unfairly be compared to David Foster Wallace
or Rick Moody
, but unlike them he has succeeded in writing a novel that's clever without being self-conscious." Washington Post
"The tentativeness with which Kunkel approaches [his] fairly radical conclusion may just be an indication of the narrowness of our contemporary literary idiom....[I]t seems to me that Kunkel manages...to preserve the superb comic tone of the novel, even as he gestures...toward a hazy new frontier of hip sincerity, of irony subordinated to a higher calling." Jay McInerney, The New York Times
"What saves the book from being frivolous...is its humor, which bursts forth in several madcap and welcome scenes." Library Journal
"Those who don't become impossibly annoyed with the hapless, initially whiny lead will enjoy seeing this well-paced tale through to the end. It isn't high art, but it's full of high spirits." Kirkus Reviews
"In the hapless, charming Dwight Wilmerding, he has created one of those narrators whose voices you can hear in your head long after the book is finished." Nell Freudenberger, author of Lucky Girls
"[I]n the end, Indecision
is not your father's novel of youthful malaise; Kunkel wants to do more than document the days and nights of the over-privileged and underpaid. He wants to explore the cause and effect of this malaise and, ultimately, its morality. Happily, Indecision
, Dwight's "memoir" of his path from Gawker-esque cubicle denizen to passionate idealist, manages to be astonishingly convincing and entertaining at once." Anna Godbersen, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
A young man plagued by chronic indecision is "pfired" by Pfizer and journeys to Ecuador in pursuit of an old flame.
About the Author
Benjamin Kunkel grew up in Colorado. He has written for Dissent, The Nation, and the The New York Review of Books, and is a founding editor of n+1 magazine.
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.
From the Trade Paperback edition.