Benjamin Kunkel's Tale of 'Indecision' Benjamin Kunkel talks about his debut novel, a tale of twenty-something angst called Indecision. Kunkel is also a co-founder of the literary magazine n+1.
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Benjamin Kunkel's Tale of 'Indecision'

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Benjamin Kunkel's Tale of 'Indecision'

Benjamin Kunkel's Tale of 'Indecision'

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, Wynton Marsalis pays tribute his hometown.

But first, Dwight B. Wilmerding is one of those people who can't decide between paper and plastic at the supermarket. He's 28 years old; he has a job he can't stand working in a cubicle for a pharmaceutical firm. But he lacks the resolve to leave it. He lives in a tiny apartment alongside other disconnected souls, but can't make a connection to them either. He isn't lonely so much as just bored. He jumps at the chance to try an experimental drug that offers him at least the hope of putting more decisiveness into his life. But when he goes off to keep a rendezvous with an old girlfriend, he has to wonder: Is it love or medication that motivates him? "Indecision" is the debut novel from Benjamin Kunkel, who's a founding editor of N+1 magazine. He joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BENJAMIN KUNKEL (Founding Editor, N+1): Good to speak with you, Scott.

SIMON: And congratulations on the wonderful reviews this book is getting.

Mr. KUNKEL: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: How do you feel about that phrase `coming of age' now?

Mr. KUNKEL: I hope that it doesn't induce a boredom immediately. I think you could say that the 19th century had a lot of adultery novels, but there were some pretty good ones. And I hope that, you know, I've written a decent `coming of age' novel.

SIMON: Yeah. I want you to do a reading from the book, if you could. And let's set the scene a little bit. Dwight is working at the Pfizer pharmaceutical firm.

Mr. KUNKEL: Right.

SIMON: And he's offered a pill by a friend. And let me get you--I don't know how to pronounce that name either. This is a made-up pill?

Mr. KUNKEL: Quite made-up.

SIMON: Yeah, Abu...

Mr. KUNKEL: It's called Abulinix.

SIMON: Well, let me get you to read for us that moment when Dwight is first confronting the little gentle blue pill that purports to be able to change his life around.

Mr. KUNKEL: I think I made it blue and white...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KUNKEL: ...since those were the colors of heaven or the sky.

`I quickly outwitted the child-proof top, shook out one of the sleek, two-tone blue and white capsules and held it like a gem up to the light. The diagnosis and the cure all at once. I understood it didn't always work that way. Yet only now that I held the panacea in my hand did I recognize abulia as my basic major overriding problem. Previously in my mind I'd been floating candidates more along the lines of ambivalence, laziness, bad faith, good family, suggestibleness regarding ideas, indiscriminate breast fixation together with a weakened libido, not having found the right person, not having been the right person, inconsequence of the self except to itself, early exposure to drugs, early exposure to other persons, especially one's parents, divorce of those parents, their marriage beforehand, a little learning, not near enough, lack of funds and/or lack of (German spoken).' See, I don't really know German.

`And throughout this whole time, I'd been unable to see all of these for the mere epiphenomena they only too obviously were. I felt like inside the pill I could see all these little magic grains of velleity adding up to maybe a will.'

SIMON: This strikes me as a very persuasive pharmaceutical that you're describing.

Mr. KUNKEL: Well, at one point, Dwight says, `Is it true that eventually they'll have a pill for everything?' to which the reply from his medical student friend is, `For everything, yes; for everyone, no.' And the difficulty of approaching all problems in psychopharmaceutical terms is meant to be discussed a bit when Dwight gives this Amazonian Indian one of his pills in hopes that this will help solve this guy's problems. Really, his problems are of a material nature...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. KUNKEL: ...and not a psychological kind.

SIMON: Let's talk about the plot a bit. He's working at the pharmaceutical firm, convinced that he's going to be outsourced, and he decides to go off on an adventure when he hears from an old prep school girlfriend.

Mr. KUNKEL: She's really sort of a MacGuffin in the book. He goes after her thinking that that's what his trip is about, that's what his journey's about. And in fact, he ends up chasing a different girl and a very different idea of what his happiness might consist of and the world's happiness.

SIMON: They wind up in the Amazon...

Mr. KUNKEL: Yes.

SIMON: ...which it's kind of irresistible to observe that here in this area that is such unknown territory, he's, of course, the old story, searching for himself.

Mr. KUNKEL: I think that one of the things that I needed to do in this book was to write from the standpoint of a character who's a bit less well-educated and I think a little less intelligent than myself. And neither of us are too intelligent perhaps, but Dwight is less intelligent than I am, so that he could approach these fundamental questions as if they could still be asked. Because I think sometimes the sophisticatedness or the ostensible sophistication of people in my generation gets in the way of our asking these questions. The assumption is that the answers have been already arrived at. And so we don't really need to look at what those answers must be. Dwight is sufficiently naive to ask himself fundamental questions.

SIMON: He says `Dude' a lot.

Mr. KUNKEL: He says `Dude' a lot. In fact, he says `dude' a lot less often now than he did before my editors got a hold of the book. They're to be thanked for that.

SIMON: The book has been--among the wonderful reviews--has been lauded for not being ironic.

Mr. KUNKEL: That term is always misused, irony. I think when you sense a difference between what you mean to be and what you are, you're being ironic and you're essentially just being human. That's no particular aspect of any generation. But what irony referred to was a kind of an inability to take seriously any of one's thoughts or feelings and ultimately an inability to take seriously one's self. And I think Dwight manages slightly by the end of the novel to begin to take himself a bit seriously.

SIMON: When you write about this affliction of indecision and it certainly suggests--the book implicitly suggests that it's an affliction of our times and particularly of a certain age group. Is this something you have seen all around you?

Mr. KUNKEL: Yeah, it reminds me a bit of those, you know, episodes of "Leave It to Beaver" where the kid who is in trouble would always speak of the trouble as belonging to one of his friends rather than himself. So I suppose I'll say that I've seen it all around me.

SIMON: Well, talk about that a little bit if you could.

Mr. KUNKEL: Well, you know, it's obviously not an affliction of everybody in the world, only a small segment of the world, but I think for a number of people in my generation, there's been a kind of explosion of freedom without any sort of similar capacity to handle the opportunities that spread themselves before us.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. Do you--are you trying to reflect a generation or are you trying to communicate with a generation and maybe take it by its shoulders and give it a shake?

Mr. KUNKEL: I think I really didn't bother about that while writing the book. I didn't think of it as a coming-of-age novel, though it obviously is one. I didn't think of it as bearing upon the problems of my generation. I think that if you end up more or less accidentally addressing your generation or explaining a little part of it to people in other generations, this is by accident.

SIMON: Mr. Kunkel, it's been a delight to talk to you. Thank you very much.

Mr. KUNKEL: It's been a pleasure speaking with you, Scott.

SIMON: Benjamin Kunkel speaking from our bureau in New York. His debut novel "Indecision" is available now. And to read an excerpt, you can come to our Web site,

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