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May 3rd, 2006 Karla Starr | Books
 

Benjamin Kunkel

All you really need to succeed as a novelist is... everything possible. Dammit!

     
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Last summer, Benjamin Kunkel's debut novel, Indecision, relentlessly inhabited my peripheral attention like a pair of bunny-costume-clad drunks throwing pizzas at my grandmother. Although I tried to ignore the matter entirely, I was unfailingly drawn to it, despite a number of potential detractors:

1. Hype. (Who wants to read a book just because everyone else seems to be reading it? The unfairness and arbitrariness by which books receive such attention!)

2. Kunkel's Colorado genesis. (Everyone I'd previously met from Colorado was strange in the most intangible way.)

3. His posh Ivy League background. (Drunk throughout high school and thus forced to attend my "safety" school, my distrust of Harvard and Columbia remain unabated.)

4. His status as founding editor of n+1, a pre-eminent journal of social and literary criticism. (Since when do young people just up and take their own ideas seriously? Say things of potential distinction?)

5. Reviewers' claims that the book appeals to my demographic. (When I'm so different from my peers! So very, very different!)

6. Author photo. (Clearly, beautiful people cannot write. Or, at least, they should not be able to do so in a just world.)

To quell my curiosity, I finally bought Indecision, which follows 28-year-old Dwight Wilmerding's coming of age (and consequential trip to the Amazon) vis-à-vis his introduction to Abulinix, an experimental drug treatment for chronic indecision.

You know that feeling you get when, after being diagnosed with diabetes for years, you finally give in and take insulin? Or that sensation immediately proceeding the signing of divorce papers? Same thing here: Things immediately began to feel as if they were falling into place. Funny, smart, compulsively readable and sufficiently aware of the myriad potential pitfalls of the bildungsroman to steer far, far away from them, Indecision is a ridiculously likeable novel in which things of actual importance are said, and said well.

Recognition of talent can beget an author crush; this was no exception. Kunkel, after all, was young, attractive, alive, ostensibly straight—and coming to Portland on tour. But the fear of meeting him was strengthened by my having been disappointed in the past by the in-the-flesh version of books. (Damn you, Jonathan Franzen!)

Was I willing to risk sullying the good names of Indecision and n+1 if he turned out to be a total dick? Yes: I owed it to the good people of Portland to get to the bottom of this. After having coffee with Kunkel, talking for a bit and attending his reading at Powell's the next day, I learned a few things—some of which I will share with you, while keeping the good stuff for myself.

While Kunkel's photo suggests attractiveness, the idea is indeed amplified many times in person. He is unnervingly intelligent and vastly more well-spoken in person than expected. He is currently at work on articles for The New York Times and The New Yorker. While he is the anti-navel-gazing, genuinely social sort of novelist, he also admits to being a homebody; so much so that he is considering leaving New York for a lower-rent locale that is free from the constraints of forced literary incestuousness and networking.

"In Walden, Thoreau says at one point that at a certain age, every man considers all property as the possible site of a house; I think I have reached that age. I don't like going out into the world very much; I prefer to stay in a small, controlled environment. I like to stay put," Kunkel told me while sipping a cappuccino in bed [in this article, "bed" means "the lobby bar of the Heathman Hotel"]. For some reason, he considers himself lazy. While the protagonist of Indecision was taking Ecstasy the night of Sept. 10, 2001, Kunkel was watching his beloved Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. He is grateful for his luck and the attention that his book has received. He holds himself to the same high standards to which he holds others. His facial hair suits him well. He seems modest. He does not eat red meat.

Last week, Jonathan Safran Foer told students at Wilson High School that books are smarter than their authors; in Kunkel's case, it's the converse that appears to be true. My opinion of Indecision improved markedly after meeting Kunkel. After witnessing his somewhat fidgety mannerisms and looking into his deep blue eyes, I could see clearly that his debut novel is the beginning of what may well be a formidable career. Meaning: If this is all it takes to succeed in the world of letters, then I am horribly, horribly screwed.

 
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