Benjamin Kunkel
Benjamin Kunkel; drawing by David Levine

It is a narcotic dullness. There are times when I am not even aware that there is anything wrong with this existence. But, on the other hand, there are times when I rouse myself in bewilderment and vexation, and then I think of myself as a moral casualty of the war.

—Saul Bellow, Dangling Man (1944)

Choosing is existence: to the extent that you don’t choose, you don’t exist.

—John Barth, End of the Road (1958)

To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

—Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (1960)


In recent American literature, if not in American life, the pathology seems to be exclusively male: an intense, monomaniacal, and often highly eloquent scrutiny of the (actionless, indeterminate) self forever poised to act, to “choose to exist,” yet somehow suspended from action, paralyzed. Its symptoms, examined like rare gems, are virtually indistinguishable from one another: “despair”—“malaise”—“strangeness”—“dissociation”—“ambivalence”—“self-loathing”—“self-revulsion”—“anxiety”—“abulia”—“low-level autism.” Surrounded by hordes of presumably normal people who make decisions with seeming ease, make choices constantly, “wear the uniform of the times” (Dangling Man), the afflicted person exists in a kind of perpetual stasis, a metaphysical vacuum, detached from others whom he regards with commingled pity, contempt, and envy. Even if he’s married like Bellow’s young “dangling man” Joseph (“dangling” as he waits with increasing anxiety to be inducted into the US Army in 1942), or allows himself to be drawn into a destructive ménage à trois like Barth’s Jacob Horner in End of the Road, or, like Percy’s genial New Orleans stock broker Binx Bolling, is casually promiscuous with a succession of secretaries (“Marcias and Sandras and Lindas”), the afflicted person is essentially solitary and asexual; his asceticism can take the form of ceaseless self-examination and recrimination, ruling out sympathy for others.

He is detached from emotion if not from his own body: “There’s something to be said for the manic-depressive if his manics are really manic; but me, I was a placid-depressive…. My lows were low but my highs were middle-register” (End of the Road). The afflicted one is a kind of catatonic: “I have begun to notice that the more active the rest of the world becomes, the more slowly I move, and that my solitude increases in the same proportion as its racket and frenzy” (Dangling Man).

The afflicted one is likely to observe himself in a detached, clinical way, as Dwight Wilmerding in Benjamin Kunkel’s first novel sees himself, as a “specimen in a box,” in which case such a microscopic examination of the self is meant not just to be self-indulgent but might be considered scientific, even allegorical.

Inevitably, and ironically, the afflicted person is intellectually under-employed: though he’s a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and something of a historian-scholar, Bellow’s twenty-seven-year-old Joseph works for the Chicago-based American Travel Bureau; Barth’s Jacob Horner teaches “prescriptive grammar” at the backwater eastern Maryland Wicomico State Teachers College in a “great flat open field”; Percy’s Binx Bolling had “dreamed of doing something great” but has succumbed to “the most ordinary life imaginable” as a stock and bond broker of mediocre accomplishment for whom the only memorable moments in his life are those he has experienced vicariously in movies, “even a bad movie.”

Ernest Hemingway isn’t obviously identified as a portraitist of neurotic male indecision and passivity, but no one has written more convincingly of the anomie of young American soldiers in the aftermath of war. The most political of writers as he is the most oblique, entirely lacking in, for instance, the passion for didacticism that so drives the fiction of Saul Bellow, Hemingway is more interested in dramatizing the emotional isolation of young men like the World War I Marine veteran Krebs in “Soldier’s Home,” of In Our Time (1925), who returns belatedly and unheroically to his Oklahoma hometown in 1919. Krebs quickly discovers that to be listened to he has to lie about his wartime experiences, and soon acquires “the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration,” which causes him to stop talking about the war. In his parents’ house Krebs is an unemployed young man in his twenties with no apparent skills or ambition, few friends, and an almost asexual interest in the young girls who’ve grown up in the two years he’d been away:

He would have liked to have a girl but he did not want to have to spend a long time getting her. He did not want to get into the intrigue and the politics. He did not want to have to do any courting. He did not want to tell any more lies…. He did not want any more consequences. He did not want consequences ever again.

Krebs’s naively religious mother inveigles him into kneeling to pray with her, which Krebs can’t do; he’s left feeling sick and vaguely nauseated, so dissociated from his life he has no emotional response to it at all. Like his contemporary Nick Adams of “Big Two-Hearted River,” Krebs is so accustomed to keeping “sensations” at bay that he’s become a kind of zombie: a prototype of a generation “lost” to wartime experience.


Though Hemingway would himself commit suicide at the age of sixty-one, in 1961, none of his principal characters commits suicide, nor is the prospect of suicide much explored in his fiction. Suicide is a philosophical option for the more intellectual characters of Saul Bellow, whose dangling man quotes approvingly lines in Goethe’s Poetry and Life:

This loathing of life has both physical and moral causes…. If these changing phenomena unfold themselves and we take no interest in them, if we are insensible to such fair solicitations, then comes on the sorest evil, the heaviest disease—we regard life as a loathsome burden. It is said of an Englishman that he hanged himself that he might no longer have to dress and undress himself every day.

This mythic Englishman makes a profound impression on the young Saul Bellow, who will wryly allude to the suicide more than a few times in years to come. John Barth’s early novels The Floating Opera (1956) and End of the Road concern themselves more specifically with suicide: Todd Andrews, the disaffected “hero” of The Floating Opera, intends to commit suicide since life is meaningless, only to realize that suicide is part of this meaninglessness; Jacob Horner of End of the Road, one of Barth’s few works of fiction in which something like psychological realism is achieved in the absence of Barth’s usual farcical humor, considers suicide but can’t bring himself to act upon it, noting that Stendhal claimed to have “once postponed suicide simply out of curiosity about the contemporary political situation in France…. And, apart from cowardice, there was a similar thing that stayed my hand.” In The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling and his beautiful, deeply neurotic heiress-cousin Kate are suicidal, but Kate is the one who tries to kill herself.

How to resolve the seemingly irresolute nature of acute passivity, stasis, paralysis? The very nature of prose fiction involves some sort of linear progression, which constitutes a plot; if action is resisted, inaction becomes the “plot.” A handy way of resolving passivity, in literature as in life, is to give up the anxiety of isolation for the mock comfort of conformity. So Bellow’s dangling man gives up the claustrophobic misery of self-knowledge (“…an inner climate of darkness. And occasionally there is a storm and hate and wounding rain out of us”) for the “uniform of the times”:

This is my last civilian day…. I am no longer to be held accountable for myself; I am grateful for that. I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom canceled.

Hurray for regular hours!

And for the supervision of the spirit!

Long live regimentation!

In effect, a kind of suicide.

Freed from his isolation by entering into a sexual relationship with the wife of a colleague, Barth’s Jacob Horner unwittingly precipitates a domestic tragedy; his dread of making choices, and in this way defining his personality, turns out to have been justified. Horner ends in a worse state than he’d begun with, after his lover’s death climbing into a taxi and uttering the word “Terminal.” In The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling is finally roused to action by his cousin’s suicide attempt and impulsively becomes her lover;

We did very badly and almost did not do at all. Flesh poor flesh failed us…. Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something. They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowadays one is hardly up to it. There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise.

Nonetheless, Binx and Kate decide to marry, in this way either compounding their mutual misery or neutralizing it; it’s appropriate that The Moviegoer end with a “happy” ending, perhaps not ironically intended.


December 5, 2002

Began memoir today. How fast I write! As easy as talking.


A young man of contemporary, post-9/11 America, acutely aware of the “lucky accident” that has made possible his sheltered, privileged, mysteriously stalled life, Benjamin Kunkel’s Dwight Wilmerding is an artful variant of that generic type of which Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in The Graduate (1967) remains the most popular example. There is no Mrs. Robinson in Indecision but there are numerous other distractions and temptations for the questing young hero, a dangling man who takes himself far less seriously than his angst-driven literary predecessors. Where at twenty-seven Saul Bellow’s fictional young Joseph is crankily middle-aged, more sour than witty in his diatribes against the conformity of others, Kunkel’s twenty-eight-year-old Dwight has the “chipper” buoyancy, the alternately exasperating and endearing garrulousness of a bright eighteen-year-old accustomed to being liked, often very well liked, for those very qualities (geniality, boyish nonaggression, “mediocrity”) that have caused him to doubt his own existence.


Divided by sixty years as by a millennium, how very different Kunkel’s generic, good-natured young Caucasian-American of 2002 is from Bellow’s quirky, highly wrought Jewish-American “Enlightenment scholar” of 1942! Bellow’s literary model for Dangling Man would seem to have been Dostoevsky’s blackly comic rant of a monologue Notes from Underground, while Kunkel’s literary model for Indecision would seem to be that most influential of contemporary memoirs, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). Apart from their vastly different styles of speech and their temperaments, Bellow’s and Kunkel’s protagonists are sharply contrasted politically: Bellow’s Joseph is preoccupied with the monumental world war in which his country is engaged (“I would rather die in the war than consume its benefits”) while Kunkel’s Dwight seems politically oblivious, if not anesthetized, following a blissful drug experience in New York City on the night of September 10, 2001:

So then we all sat around holding hands with boys kissing girls, and girls kissing girls, and boys occasionally kissing boys, and everyone saying there was going to be more tenderness in the world starting right now and spreading out from this room. Especially if we installed a webcam. Global tenderness would radiate from us in waves….

“More good, less bad!” reiterated Sanch, who was completely naked now and had started distributing hard candy suckers for us all to suck on.

In a scene of singular irony, the ecstasy-infused “boys” and “girls” (in fact, they’re in their mid-twenties) wake in the morning to a stunning vision from one of their windows:

A huge gout of smoke was pouring from a lateral tear in one of the towers, six blocks away; and suddenly, beneath the massive buildings, under the tall sheer sky, I felt obscene and small, like a fly batting at the bottom of a TV screen.

When, near the end of the novel, Dwight experiences another erotic-ecstatic drug vision, this time in Ecuador, and is converted to democratic socialism (“democracy and socialism being reinforcing tendencies”) by the persuasiveness of his attractive female companion, the reader is left both hopeful and skeptical, for Dwight gives no sign of having fundamentally, that’s to say intellectually, changed, still less matured; we wonder if a hallucinogenic-inspired conversion to political activism, however laudable, will prevail beyond the next drug session.

An alternate title for Indecision might have been The Young Man Without Qualities, for Dwight Wilmerding’s condition is a generalized emptiness of soul of which “abulia,” or indecision, is but one component. Written in the form of a memoir, the novel is structured as a sequence of scenes brightly lighted in the tone of TV situation comedy interlarded with passages of self-scrutiny of such a painstaking, magnifying sort that the portrait of Dwight Wilmerding which emerges is both gigantic and blurred, like a Chuck Close painting seen at too-close quarters. Very likely, Kunkel intends his protagonist to be a satiric portrait at times, and at other times a sympathetic portrait, but it’s an uneasy mix. The novel’s unvarying tone is one of wry self-deprecation, lacking the detachment and savagery requisite for effective satire.

In the acknowledgments to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers speaks of “Self-Flagellation as Art Form”—“The Self-Aggrandizement Disguised as Self-Flagellation as Even Higher Art Form”—and

The Search for Support, A Sense of Community, If You Will, in One’s Peers, in Those One’s Age, After One Looks Around and Realizes that All Others, All Those Older, Are Either Dead or Should Be….

So, too, Kunkel begins his hero’s odyssey with a prologue in which Dwight Wilmerding speaks disarmingly to the reader:

I’m sorry to begin my narrative of important life-changing events so abstractly, especially when the story includes, as well as some sex and many drugs and my final prescription for what the whole world needs, plenty of specific sense data…. But abstract is how I felt…. Other people might feel that I stayed the same from place to place; but to myself I always seemed totally steeped in my environment, or dyed in local color, and now because in transit I felt suffused with utter nowhereness, and therefore like I might turn out to be anyone at all.

Most of Indecision continues in this vein, a succession of perceptions (“I felt shamed into modesty by [my] ignorant enthusiasms…also somehow by the unhurt quality of my minor life”; “The real thing about mediocrity is you’re misunderstood even worse than a genius”) that are funny and insightful and yet wing past us like impersonal one-liners. There is something of the stand-up comedian in Dwight, graduate of an elite East Coast prep school who wound up at Eureka State University in California, while his classmates went to Ivy League universities. Dwight is even self-conscious about his self-consciousness:

Suddenly I’d lost the sensation of there being either a source or an end to my life, an original birth or ultimate death, and was therefore amazed at how everyone seemed to consider me a solid reliable young man.

“Abulia” is the clinical term Dwight has taken up to explain the vacuousness of his life where, in previous generations, such conditions as “existential anxiety”—or “laziness”—might have been diagnosed. Dwight is too intelligent not to know that his extreme self-consciousness is a cliché of his generation of educated, affluent Caucasian- Americans: his “low-level autism” is “an epidemic in this country. Especially among white suburban males.” Where there is a problem in the Age of Pharmaceuticals, the solution is inevitably a drug, in this case a new psychotropic called Abulinix, which Dwight begins to take immediately, with naive enthusiasm. (Only to discover sometime later that the tablets he’d believed were helping him make crucial decisions were really placebos, and that a dangerous side effect of Abulinix is suicide.)

At the start of Indecision, Dwight has just been terminated from his modestly paying ($26,000 yearly, no health insurance) job as an assistant communications technician subcontracted to the Problem Resolution Center at the gigantic pharmaceutical corporation Pfizer, and he has come to the belated realization that he has no more feeling for the young woman who seems to adore him than he would have for a dog:

It often seemed at night that I would make a better dog owner than boyfriend. It wasn’t apparent to me how best to treat Vaneetha, each woman being so different. Whereas every dog, in spite of the really incredible variety of the species, required more or less the same regimen of food and water, walks and affectionate pats on the head. However in the city it actually exacted a lot less responsibility to have a girlfriend than a dog. And I really wanted one or the other since like any person, or dog, I too craved affection.

More disconcerting, Dwight and his several roommates are soon to be evicted from their Chambers Street apartment where they live as a “cozy set of underachievers” in “pasteboard cubicles and weird dorm-style intimacy,” listening to the Grateful Dead and pondering the directionlessness of their lives. It’s an atmosphere in which, when Dwight speaks of Ground Zero “down the street,” he might be speaking of a restaurant or trendy new club. Not yet thirty, Dwight reminisces about undergraduate days at Eureka

when fellow college students had listened to Nirvana, dabbled in heroin, gone on to Prozac, and with a recession on and the job market looking bad, developed the fad of wearing mechanics’ uniforms with blunt proletarian names stitched in cursive over the heart…. Meanwhile I’d gone around just being as chipper as my nature insisted. Only around now did I seem to have become, way past the point of cultural appropriateness, the unambitious and flannel-wearing holder-down of a totally dead-end job.

Trained in philosophy to think, Dwight is disadvantaged by the fact that he seems to have little to think about but himself and the “total contingency” of his life. In the “vegetal peacefulness” of protracted immaturity he picks relentlessly at trivial failings:

• ambivalence

• laziness

• bad faith

• good family

• suggestibleness (regarding ideas)

• resistance (regarding events)

• indiscriminate breast fixation

• together with a weakened libido

• not having been the right person

Like one of Bellow’s bookish characters, Dwight has taken up an obscure work of philosophy, The Uses of Freedom by Otto Knittel, a (fictitious) commingling of the philosophies of Heidegger and Wittgenstein from which he quotes with boyish enthusiasm. Kunkel is painfully funny in his send-up of philosophy majors who tumble into the world after graduation with a penchant for solemn, Germanic pontificating “shit” utterly useless in an adult world controlled by corporations like Pfizer.

In episodes illustrating Dwight’s estrangement from his mildly eccentric, to him “incomprehensible” family, Dwight visits with his “creakily Bohemian” mother, who since her divorce has become an “ascetic,” author of a manuscript titled The Episcopalian Vegetarian; his annoyingly intrusive sister Alice, a “leftist” adjunct anthropology professor at NYU; and his father, who, though he has declared bankruptcy, drives a new-model luxury car and continues to live in the upscale Wilmerding family home in an affluent Connecticut community. Dwight, and Kunkel, clearly admire this swaggering Cheeveresque “golf-and-scotch-oriented”‘ Dad:

[When Dwight was seventeen] he’d struck me as just some bluff pink-faced ghoul of a commodity-trading genius who had chosen the main features of his life in order to make himself into some weird totem of his social position, instead of…following the mad, barking dictates of his soul wherever those might have led, like possibly to Vermont or else northern California. I mean, how could any free person choose, from the whole universal range, to be this dad and moneyman and golfer, a resident of northwestern Connecticut walking around in WASP casual, going to the reunions, belonging to the clubs, and describing himself…as a Rockefeller Republican?

But in their “zeitgeisty” conversation so-predictable Dad surprises twenty-eight-year-old Dwight by telling him that “the old religious concept of the ‘soul'” is passé and advising him that “drug companies are the place to be.” When Dwight breaks down and confides in his father that he’s been fired from his dead-end job, is penniless, and has no skills, Dad responds like a good suburban father and writes him a check, and gives him some very good advice: “Don’t make a career out of your childhood.”

Kunkel’s treatment of Dwight’s family is refreshingly sympathetic; these are comic characters, yet not caricatures. Dwight’s sister Alice has told him that their shared problem—their immaturity—might be attributed to the fact that “we belong to a social class and a generation where our parents live too long and remain too economically powerful.” Later, in Ecuador, Dwight broods upon this subject:

Now that I thought of my particular American family, and the portion of lucky accident that seemed to have fallen onto our lives to get mistaken for grace, I became a little unreal to myself. Their luck had become my luck, and what did I do with my luck? It seemed like I just sat in it, waiting for more.

Once Dwight flies to Ecuador, summoned by an elusive young woman whom he scarcely knows, Indecision becomes more pointedly a romantic comedy of errors and misconceptions in which a happy, or near-happy, ending is inevitable. If it’s possible to take Dwight Wilmerding seriously as a social activist in Bolivia, it’s less possible to take him seriously as a lover wanting to marry a young Belgian woman with whom his sister Alice has conspired to match him. A friend comments:

So in Ecuador you had a midlife crisis…. Dwight, people don’t do this anymore. You don’t fly to Latin America, take psychedelic drugs, and find sexual liberation with some suntanned goddess of international socialism…. Now is not thirty-five years ago.

It may be that, in this risky conclusion to a novel that has meandered with commendable spirit and a timely sense of the absurd, Benjamin Kunkel is presenting his hero’s “life-change” without irony.

This Issue

November 3, 2005