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Benjamin Kunkel: Indecision

One of the lists I have thought of doing (and may yet do) is the generation-defining novel. You know the ones I mean – On the Road, Catcher in the Rye, Bright Lights, Big City, Less Than Zero, Generation X and many others. Most of them are from the USA. Most of them are not very good. On the Road, for example, is dire but you have to read it, don’t you? Or, at least you do if you are an American of a certain age. And here is another one. Hailed by (some) reviewers (though vilified by others), whether you think it is a good novel or not, it has a certain fascination, claiming, as it does, to speak for the generation of twenty-somethings who experienced 9/11.

The title says it all. Dwight Wilmderding, a twenty-eight year old preppie, living in New York, working in tech support for Pfizer, is indecisive. More than that, he is an under-achiever and has no real interests. He drifts around from girlfriend to girlfriend, not sure if the latest is the one, has mild (but only mild) incestuous desires for his sister, Alice, does some drugs (but not too much), does not like his job (but does not really hate it), is likeable and bland, lives in a shared apartment with some mildly (but only mildly) strange people, is thinking of moving to Vermont but is not sure, is the class organiser for his prep school and still dresses as a preppy. He sums up his failings with a long list, including ambivalence, laziness, bad faith, suggestibleness (sic), not having found the right person, not having been the right person and so on. His parents are divorced but he understands and gets on with both. His sister teaches at college but lives on her own and seems to have no friends outside her immediate family. Even 9/11 has little direct impact on him, as he was doing ecstasy at the time.

At the beginning of the novel he is organising the tenth reunion of his prep school class. He receives an email from Natasha, a Dutch woman, whom he was always attracted to, who cannot come but who invites him to Quito, where she is. He decides to go. Before he leaves, a few key things happen. Firstly, he is fired. His job was about to be outsourced to Mumbai but when he inadvertently catches sight of a confidential memo and does not immediately delete it, he is fired. Secondly, one of his room-mates, a medical student, offers him a drug to deal with his abulia. It is this abulia that typifies him and is deemed to be, at least in part, a symptom of his generation. Taking Abulinix (the anti-abulia drug, which won’t take effect for two weeks), he heads off to Ecuador. However, Natasha didn’t really mean to invite him as she is about to leave (to have an abortion), so he is left with Brigid, a part-Belgian woman (though she speaks poor French, though that may be Kunkel rather than her) who has just abandoned a study she was doing in the Amazon jungle. The pair set off on a holiday but end up back in the jungle. Will the Abulinix work? Will the other drugs they take have an effect? Will it spoil the story if I tell you that he finds democratic socialism (yeah, right), gets the girl and is a big hit at the ten year reunion? It is not a very good book but if indecision is typical of his generation (and, if it isn’t, I am betting that various interesting drugs are, as they were for some of the generation-definers mentioned above), then it at least gives us a glimpse of how this generation is going to make just a much a mess of the world as its predecessors did.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Random House