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.

Dwight makes a big noise about his ‘indecision’, which he believes has reached such disabling levels that the mere promise of a miracle drug called Abulinix is enough to make him even more hypervoluble and hyperactive than normal. But – this is what he doesn’t know – his indecision is not the cause of his incessant self-examination: it is his self-examination’s side-effect. It is the sign of activity, not its opposite. He worries about the decisions he has already made before the results kick in, but that is a sign that he is making decisions that matter. For a novel with a supposedly paralysed protagonist a great deal happens. He has an Ecstasy-inspired near-orgy on the evening of 10 September 2001, causing him and his undressed friends to be mildly perplexed by what they see the following morning from their fire escape in downtown Manhattan: ‘Hey! Another plane! They’ve sent it to rescue the other – or it must be coming to help all the . . .’ He is accused by his line-manager at Pfizer of stealing corporate secrets: rather than proclaim his innocence, or falsely accept the blame, he fights back in furious kind and is instantly sacked (‘Pfired! So I’m pfucked!’). He tells his girlfriend he may be interested in someone else and dumps her: ‘I feel it would be unphilosophical to do anything but submit to my freedom.’ He flies to Ecuador. He takes a supply of Abulinix – still in phase-one clinical trials – that has been pilfered by his medical room-mate. He genially extorts money from his willing father. He decides to be psychoanalysed by his sister. He tries to kiss his sister. Nearly everything he does is designedly and teasingly transgressive, though spoken in a way that seems to take nothing seriously.

In a novel with a first-person narrator there is always the possibility that the narrator is meant to mislead. Dwight is sincere – the most misleading thing about the book is its title – but he does mislead, by leaving things out. Reading the coin-tossing passage we’re tempted to think that his mind is made up by the coin, but all we really know is that the first flip was a head: the next four could have been tails. The coin is immaterial, since any adverse throws are forgotten. The rest is his game-playing with his sister. Her ‘you really fucking do this?’ is exactly the response he needs: it’s endearing, playing the madman.

A related example has him making decisions on whether to accept invitations – to parties, on dates – on the basis of a coin-flip: a technique, he says, that has the advantage of ensuring ‘a certain scarcity of Dwightness on the market; it contributed the prestige of the inscrutable to my otherwise transparent persona.’ The word ‘market’ is telling here. Being available half the time seems a fairly good rule of thumb for social success in the air-kissingly neurotic version of New York the novel describes: like Sex and the City with fewer affairs and cheaper clothes. The vapidness of the social scene that Dwight is attentive enough but too nice to criticise is perhaps the reason for his jokingly attempted jump on his sister: Alice at least is real. Of course anyone who can use the word ‘Dwightness’ in reference to his self-image – anyone, come to that, who can be called Dwight – might be seen to be part of the problem, might in fact be seen as insufferable. But this is a sign of Kunkel’s boldness: overcoming a Dwight’s inherent Dwightness is a challenge he has set himself. The mystery of this novel and the reason it works is that Dwight isn’t insufferable at all.

He’s affected by the world around him but isn’t completely spoiled by it. He dislikes insincerity, specifically the experience of recounting episodes from a holiday over and over until the anecdotes become a substitute for the memory. Part of his problem is that there is too much currency on the market – words, images, packaged goods – and that the shelves are overstocked with identical products that insist on their specialness. The book contains very few genuine demonstrations of his indecisiveness, despite his insistence on it, and those there are all stem from the need to buy stuff. He always gets an ‘everything bagel’ to spare himself the trauma of having to choose between fillings. The owner of his local deli calls him a ‘patient shopper’ as he prowls the aisles: ‘There was something else that I wanted, now and always, and often I devoted several minutes to hunting out this phantasmal snack.’ There he is, knowingly ensnared, but unable to succumb to the final snare of the label and hand over the money. This isn’t one of those youthfully hip contemporary novels in which a rash of brand names is meant to show that the writer has his finger on the zeitgeist’s pulse: beer is generally beer and food is food. But Dwight sets off for Ecuador without a guidebook, since he was unable to choose between Let’s Leave and Tough Planet. By (as it were) accidentally spoofing the names of products that are such an emblematically discussed part of the culture – the backpacker world in which you would be deemed insanely infra-dig for having a Rough Guide in India when everybody knows that in Asia it’s Lonely Planet or nothing – Kunkel is neatly denying these things the sham difference they trade under. All this fluff might seem an easy and trivial target for an angry writer, but it’s the material of everyday life, and it gets under the skin, and it itches.

You might wonder what role there is for character in a novel that repeatedly delivers as its semi-obscured point an attack on consumerism, and that ends – enlightenment! – with Dwight in Bolivia publicising the plight of the coca farmers. I think Kunkel has asked himself the same question, and found an elaborate and interesting answer. A novelist has to decide if his protagonist – whether narrator or intimately interiorly narrated – is the architect or cause of his plot, or if he is passively subject to events. Being the cause of a plot doesn’t have to mean you wish it: Hardy’s characters, for instance, cause their own various downfalls by their refusal to surrender to the social forces that control them. Taking the alternative course, and making your character malleable, runs the risk of leaving him blankly generic, though it may be the only option if you want your book to have as broad as possible a message. This works for adventure literature, where the action can gather momentum to make up for the character’s blankness: you just bundle your puppet-hero into the back of a car and have psychotropic drugs administered. But a political novel that doesn’t aspire to be an airport thriller has to compromise: the more defined its protagonist, the muddier its message. Immediately on his arrival in Ecuador Dwight is bundled into the back of a car with a Belgian stranger and – after a flight through the jungle – is soon accepting hallucinogens from sketchy Chileans. This is a novelist’s joke. Dwight is not a brainless Action Man or insensate rag-doll but a person: complicated, contradictory and undeviously likeable. The only reason he can stand in for the spymaster’s puppet towards the end of the book is that the beginning nearly led us to believe that he can’t make up his mind, that he has no will of his own, that he’s a zero. He is, but only in the sense that he’s a novelist’s construct.

Critics have chosen to think of Dwight as inactive, as formless putty, because that is how the novel describes him in its early pages. He’s on his way to Ecuador, and should by rights be feeling full of himself:

But abstract is how I felt, up in the air, on the plane, at the time. Other people might feel I stayed the same from place to place; but to myself I always seemed totally steeped in my environment, or dyed in local colour, and now because in transit I felt suffused with utter nowhereness, and therefore like I might turn out to be anyone at all.

He might indeed turn out to be anyone at all, but that isn’t surprising. His novel has only just begun, and his novelist may not have decided what to do with him yet. It seems to me that this is in part a piece of writing about writing, a reflection of an actual paralysis. There’s the vertiginous fear of the blank page (‘up in the air’), and the anxiety that this character might turn out to be no different from a load of others, and the faint but as yet untested hope that since no mark has yet been made his horizons are unlimited. There’s some anxiety in the syntax too, in the halting comma-laden first sentence, as though each step is a great labour. A few pages later we learn that Dwight, Quito-bound, knows no Spanish: ‘I guess I’d studied French instead because it seemed like the thing I would do.’ It’s an instance of attempted definition that could apply either to the prep-school kid or to the novelist: the child trying to decide what kind of adult he should be, the novelist trying to give his protagonist some logical coherence. Kunkel is laying bare his thinking here, without breaking the character’s spell. It’s a nice touch.

Kunkel creates dangers for himself with his Dwight. A character who depends on his ‘Dwightness’, who garners credibility as a reliable charismatic thanks to the testimonials of others (‘“Dwight, dude!, you’re exactly the same, man!” an old friend from school would say. Or “So lovely to have seen you, Dwight, you haven’t changed a bit!” a friend of mom’s would say. Even mom herself would sometimes say this’), might be seen to be of questionable solidity. He’s not doing the mesmerising himself, we think: Kunkel is asserting a charm that the character can’t live up to. But the moment Dwight begins interacting you see that self-deprecating charm is ingrained in his every skewed sentence. He has a taste for what appear to be aphorisms: ‘I too was offended. The regular alliance of happiness with idiocy has always been for me as a happy person one of the world’s more painful features.’ As a seemingly Wildean wisecrack, this passes you by until you notice that what it really says is that he worries he looks like an idiot. The very formulation oozes superciliousness, and yet here disguises the self-pointed irony of genuine disclosure. Witticisms are supposed to be a form of attack, and Dwight’s compelling trick here is to turn a witticism’s withering force almost invisibly against himself.

Dwight is moreover a curious and precise observer whose observations don’t pretend to objectivity:

He was spared from answering by the appearance right in front of us of a jostling cohort of drunken prosperous young men in shirts of probably superhigh threadcount. A bar had just released them into the streets, and one dude was looking kind of askance at me in the bathrobe – which was thick as a carpet, maroon-coloured, and classily monogrammed with Mr R.’s initials. Really I had nothing to be ashamed of.

The words ‘drunken prosperous young men’ in proximity to the flip ‘one dude’ combine the fuddy duddy Dwight of the brown Oxfords and respectable if not-quite-designer shirts with a defensive would-be streetwise cool. He can’t quite settle on what he is, it’s true, but his unsettledness is a complex of his self-awareness and a hypersensitivity to those around him. That ‘one dude’ has an old-fashioned ring, and expresses a fuzzy solidarity with even the most anti-social of his neighbours. The last line is ambiguous. This could be self-directed irony: Dwight might indeed think he has something to be ashamed of, prep-school alumnus as he is, as he swans around a night-time town that is disgorging citizens of every sort. Or it could be aggressive, a suggestion that the young men in shirts of ‘probably superhigh threadcount’ shouldn’t be proud of themselves either. In either case, it’s difficult to know whether Dwight is being serious.

Seriousness is often a question. Here he is in an early conversation with a room-mate:

Sanch said: ‘Yeah man fucking Hugo Chávez drinks sixteen espressos a day. And that’s after his staff weaned him down from twenty-four.’

‘Amazing!’ I was really impressed with this man. ‘Who is Hugo Chávez?’

‘He’s, like, a revolutionary.’

‘Sounds like it,’ I said.

The real question is whether this is Dwight’s joke or his author’s, made at Dwight’s expense. Is Kunkel gently mocking his creation? Or is Dwight the memoir-writer confessionally revealing himself and all his inadequacies? There’s a third and more alarming possibility: that he might be fully aware of what he’s saying, and might understand exactly who Chávez is, but can’t resist raising the laugh and playing the dumb comedian. It’s attractive, being Bart Simpson. This is before his political conversion, by which point it has become vital to know how serious he is, particularly since the person who converts him is a very sexy anthropologist called Brigid. ‘Tu es nul,’ she says, and looks at him with hard, mirthful eyes. His relationship with her is mostly spent on discussions about whether he can see that to wash his hands of everything is not acceptable. What he does see is that Brigid is a serious girl, and ought to be taken more seriously. So he reins in his natural tendency and doesn’t hope to be liked, much less admired: until they partake of a drug derived from the root of a certain tree and find themselves, naked, in an Edenic clearing at the end of an Ecuadorian arroyo.

There of course seems something criminally easy about an ending in which a carefree man about town suddenly reforms himself and embraces a liberal activism that makes him feel as good as the drugs did, only in a different way. Kunkel knows this, and it’s because he knows it that he has chosen the fantasy setting for his dénouement: that grassy clearing, with its tones of the soft-porn shampoo commercial. It’s another genre joke, and provides a perhaps misleadingly glossy packaging for a message that lies precisely not in Dwight’s questionable conversion, but at every other point in this very serious and very funny novel. The real trouble with flipping a coin to make a decision isn’t that it means you don’t care, but that you are denying your own agency. Dwight is irresponsible, but his interest in decision-making and its opposites and consequences makes him an agent of a sort, the vehicle of a novelist with something to say.