Pfired!

Daniel Soar

  • Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel
    Picador, 241 pp, £12.99, November 2005, ISBN 0 330 44456 5

When in doubt, toss a coin. If you really can’t decide which alternative is preferable, if everything seems equal and you don’t care a damn, it can’t matter what you settle on. Or so you would think. But to flip a coin – literally or figuratively – and abide by the result whatever the consequences would be an inhuman act. If you’ve ever tried coin-flipping you’ll know that there’s a good chance you won’t accept the outcome: ‘Heads? But I can’t!’ Having been confronted with an imminent imagined possibility that you can’t countenance, you will have discovered what it is you wanted to do – or at least will have learned that what you do matters very much indeed.

At the beginning of Indecision Dwight Wilmerding is trying to decide whether to go to Quito in Ecuador in search of a girl, or whether he’d rather stay at home in a grimy post-student New York apartment with cardboard walls and a cosy set of underachieving room-mates. He’s on the phone to his sister, Alice, coin in hand.

The first toss came up heads. So that plus Alice’s blessing had me feeling I should go. Yet I flipped again, then a third time. I knew a larger sample size would make the stats more accurate. Should I really go? But how do you ever know until you have gone? Alice was still on the phone for the fifth flipping. ‘You are mentally ill,’ she said . . . ‘You really fucking do this?’

He goes. There wasn’t really a choice to be made. This is a novel, after all, and a novel that isn’t afraid of adventure: Dwight’s escapade in Ecuador takes up Parts Two and Three. Had he decided not to go, denying both the apparent diktat of chance and his own desire, he would be what the book’s American critics have said he is: chronically indecisive, a young man in the mould of Bellow’s Dangling Man with no reason to act. He would be paralysed. As an over-privileged well-educated white middle-class twentysomething with a taste for recycled philosophy, he could have paced around his room and loitered darkly. Ecuador would then have been to him what Moscow supposedly is to Chekhov’s several sisters: a dream of an alternative that will never be hazarded.

But Dwight knows what he wants and will get it, eventually, with much fumbling charm and disarmingly protested innocence. He doesn’t even wear the right clothes to be a too cool for school outsider: preppy Brooks Brothers shirts and cords are his shamefully preferred outfits. He speaks in fantastic sentences that express a warm gentility towards all his peers. He’s a comedian. I suspect that the critics don’t understand what paralysis is, or how powerfully it takes hold, if they think that this bustling character – deeply involved as he is in the superficial events that surround him – is meant to be its representative. Perhaps Joyce Carol Oates, whose comments appeared in the New York Review of Books and who has written some forty novels to Benjamin Kunkel’s one, has a peculiar idea of what constitutes inactivity.

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