by Benjamin Kunkel
There's a heat wave in New York, and I'm not referring to the weather. I'm referring to the complete combustion of excitement over Benjamin Kunkel's debut novel, Indecision, positioned as the book of the fall—and maybe, if you believe the effusive praise—the book of the decade. "Benjamin Kunkel is about to become one of our most important young novelists," assures Daniel Menaker, Random House's editor-in-chief, in a letter that came with review copies of the book. Then two weeks ago, Random House's publicity department issued a press release that sounded as if it were written by hummingbirds on speed, beginning, "Not since Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated in 2002 has a debut novel been the COVER of the New York Times Book Review!"
That review, written by Jay McInerney—once a bright, big young thing himself—argues that the American bildungsroman is still alive and well, thanks to Kunkel's "fresh and funny" take on it. Writing about Indecision's protagonist, Dwight Wilmerding, McInerney invokes Holden Caulfield's name with reverence. Holden is invoked in Michiko Kakutani's New York Times review of Indecision as well, although maybe the word isn't "invoked" but "hijacked," as Kakutani's review is written in the voice of Holden Caulfield himself. While McInerney is straightforwardly sycophantic, Kakutani's review raises questions. "Old Dwight's book really knocked me out," writes Kakutani-as-Holden—or is it the other way around? Is adopting Holden's voice a way for the notoriously savage Kakutani to disguise her admiration for the book? Or is it an act of deepest irony (trumping even the irony at the heart of Indecision)?
Kunkel's book is not bad, but nor is it particularly good. It alternates between hasty build-up leading to hysterical action, and tiresome repetition (the chapters are orderly as flow charts, often beginning with Wilmerding waking up, then: scene/flashback/scene/poignant closing image), jerking and grinding like a roller coaster designed by someone who's never ridden one. There's a heavy reliance on voice to carry everything along, and while others have praised Kunkel's "masterly ear" (McInerney) as something that "grabs your attention and just won't let go" (Caulfield via Kakutani), I find a canned quality to some of the jokes ("Like many men, he was impregnable"). There's even a line break after many of them, like a visual rim shot. And while Kunkel's ear is fine, his eye could use some work: "You could feel like the wood itself had grown dark through meditation and that even sunlight became semithoughtful when it slid through colored glass into the incense-marbled air." Semithoughtful sunlight? Seems like smoke and mirrors.
Indecision is so stuffed with self-reflection and meta-whatever that it's nearly impossible to separate what is supposed to be ironic and jokey and what is supposed to be heartfelt and true. This distracts the reader from the basic—I can think of no other word—embarrassment of the book: its plot. Dwight's fondness for drugs, his excessive fondness for his sister, his inability to hold down a job or relationship, his dashing off into the South American jungle—these are familiar elements of the modern bildungsroman. But whereas an honest book struggles through the endless problem that is plot, working over familiar human stories to make them new and relevant, Kunkel cops out under the guise of postmodernism and the drug-induced haze that hangs over the end of the book. (McInerney buys the ending with its Hollywood twist, but the dynamic duo of Kakutani/Holden is not fooled.)
Indecision is sure to do well—however, caveat provocateur: What New York giveth, it also taketh away. Reviewers may act like they have a new Jonathan Safran Foer on their hands, tripping over themselves to praise Kunkel, but that isn't necessarily a good thing. Foer followed his daring (and much-lauded) first book with a daring second book (a better book than most published in the last year), and it was much shit upon (or, as McInerney says smugly in his none-too-veiled description, "spanked"). Weirdly, Kakutani criticized Foer's second novel in part for its protagonist's resemblance to—ta da!—Holden Caulfield, calling the character "an entirely synthetic creation." And yet the narrator of Indecision is a synthesis of everything around him—including, critics agree, characters from books that have preceded this one—who relies on a drug trip in the jungle for his ultimate enlightenment. The final question, I suppose, is whether you believe the novel's final pages. I don't. But you should read it yourself and decide.