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Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel

Diagnosis: Undecided

Benjamin Kunkel's debut novel, Indecision, is the fictional memoir of Dwight Wilmerding, an intellectually humble (but not unintelligent) young man from New York City. Set in New York pre-, during and post- 9/11, while also having a large section set in South American, Indecision is primarily a story of a man in search of meaning and resolution. Sadly, the disparate bunch of idealologues that constitute his friends and family provide neither.

Dwight's trouble, we learn early on, is his chronic abulia -- that is, his inability to make decisions. Whether it's an entrée or a girlfriend, a candy bar or a philosophy, Dwight just can't choose. Answer arrives in the form of a new pill -- Abulinix -- which treats chronic indecision, but takes a while to set in. Soon Dwight's abulia becomes a source of considerable existential turmoil and, in order to side-step questions of romantic commitment, sibling incest and newfound unemployment, he just ups and leaves to Ecuador in search of an old flame who may or may not be pleased to see him.

The style of the novel is sprawling and digressive, with Dwight's introspections exploring psychoanalysis, consumption-cultures and thinly veiled Heideggerian philosophy between paragraphs of lengthy dialogue. In the style of most good rites-of-passages, Dwight considers questions of his own mortality, apathy and ambition, this time through constant wry, self-reflexive narration. Perhaps the most striking of Kunkel's achievements with the narrative voice is the fluency with which he uses it to tackle major political or social conundrums. Dwight is by no means conclusive -- could an abuliac ever be? -- but his internal meanderings are put across with a crisp, witty description that feels fresh yet familiar.

Throughout Indecision, Kunkel uses a repertoire of mind-bending narrative techniques to patch together a sketchy, chronologically disjointed storyline. Dream sequences fade into chapter-long reminiscences. The narrator -- Dwight -- engages the reader directly, explaining why he's used a particular narrative motif. As the story progresses these techniques -- rather than confusing the plot or hindering Dwight's often paradoxical assertions -- serve to emphasize the nature of his problem by protracting or fragmenting his thought processes. The result is an accurate (if somewhat convoluted) look into the post-graduation void.

The book isn't without faults. Some rather perfunctory plot twists and underdeveloped characters detract from the overall realness of what goes on. Towards the end, Dwight becomes an implausible overnight socialist and the latter parts of the book are more politicised and, as a result, less universally amusing. The tone also changes. At the start, Dwight is hapless but charming – the self-conscious product of an over-abundant society. By the end he is vaguely more resolute but inevitably more tiresome. It seems that halfway through, Kunkel decided that his fiction was without a distinct moral agenda and so, to rectify, slotted into the storyline unnecessarily specific political references and brought the more implicit ethical concerns to the surface. In playing fabulist, Kunkel has sacrificed believability for idealism and the plot loses out as a result.

Generally, bildungsroman purists needn't worry -- Kunkel's Dwight Wilmerding doesn't claim to rival the likes of Salinger's Holden Caulfield or Fitzgerald's Amory Blaine. In fact Dwight never feels like much more than a vehicle for Kunkel's ideas, and as such, the novel reads a lot like the (albeit very perceptive) blog of a young Harvard graduate.


Indecision By Benjamin Kunkel
Random House
Softcover/$21.95
ISBN 1-4000-6345-0
231 pages