Book Review 14: A Great Character Study

In my experience when a person doesn't know what to do with himself, he will check his email. So with a blank and troubled mind I strolled into the office of the pension, and stood in line waiting for the one super-slow email connection.
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Benjamin Kunkel is a skilled writer. "Indecision" is filled with funny and brilliant observations. The book is fast paced and engaging. While it has a nice plot that Kunkel fleshes out well, the plot is not the main point of the book. It's really a study of the main character and his family.

Helping out with the character study is the fact that the characters are interesting. I enjoyed learning about them, and I enjoyed reading "Indecision."

And 80% of the book is great. Unfortunately, the end of the book doesn't live up to the long journey it takes to get there. Kind of like the shaggy dog story.

Dwight is an aimless 20-something who gets fired from a low level tech support position. His friends' lives are moving on as they grow up; his quasi-girlfriend is a currency trader, and his sister is a college professor and practicing socialist. His mother is an acetic Episcopalian and his father is recovering from a bankruptcy.

And Dwight has no idea what he wants to do. So he reads German philosophy, contemplates the nature of life around him, and considers moving to Vermont.

I was looking again at the words, with one eye open and the other shut since I'd taken out my contacts and otherwise couldn't focus on the lines. "Procrastination is our substitute for immorality," went the first half of the sentence I was rereading; "we behave as if we have no shortage of time." I read that book at maybe two pages an hour.

Page 18

Everything changes when his roommate offers him an experimental pill designed to cure abulia – a chronic inability to make decisions.

Dwight takes the pill and before it has a chance to take effect, he decides by the flip of a coin, to visit and old friend from High School. In Ecuador. Dwight met Natasha in high school where she was a foreign exchange student from the Netherlands. They became fast friends.

Al interrupted me: "What honestly is the deal, Dwight, between you and foreign women?"…"Um, when they're foreign…"

"Yes, Dwight?"

"…then it makes more sense that they're foreign."

Page 5

The rest of the book follows Dwight through the Ecuadorian jungle as he gets used to the idea of the drug kicking in soon. The book switches back and forth between Dwight's travels with his Ecuador companions and flashbacks to his life in New York.

Kunckel throws a lot of stuff at the reader, yet it is still easy to follow. The flashback technique is one that becomes annoying in many books, but not with "Indecision." The flashbacks appear at relevant portions of the Ecuador story, and build on what we are learning about Dwight and his family.

As the book draws to a close, Dwight comes to his big epiphany and tries to build his life around it.

But I don't buy it.

This is my main problem with the book. Dwight's big personal growth spurt and change in the last 40 pages or so of the book seems artificial. There's nothing organic about it. And, while big personal revelations may sometimes represent a quantum shift in a person's thinking, those changes should still have some strong connection to the character. Here, they don't. They're shallow, which is in stark contrast to the depth we've already seen in Dwight's character.

Dwight's change of thought, and the way he decides to approach life just aren't the natural outgrowth of the narrative. The new Dwight seems forced.

While the ending of the book is disappointing, I still recommend it. The writing and storytelling make for a fantastic journey. The character sketch is deep and (mostly) genuine. If you like good writing, witty observations, paragraphs that pop, and a great character study, you'll enjoy "Indecision."

Here are some of my favorite lines:

When Dwight arrives in Ecuardor:

The woman and I were still laughing when Natasha arrived. "Look! Already fast friends!" She sounded more Dutch than I'd expected, or remembered. She was still Natasha, but it's true, a little different. She looked weird, anxious – kind of like how I felt. Then she flashed the famous smile. "You see, Brigit, Dwight is like I told you. Right away he belongs to everybody."

Page 11

On dating:

In any case 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. Hmn.

Page 16

On phone calls:

At least at night the phone didn't ring. My feeling was, the soul is startled by the telephone and never at ease in its presence. Often on a midtown street someone's cell would ring and half a dozen people would check their pockets to see if it was them being called, and I'd glimpse a flash of panic in one or another guy's eyes. Myself, I kind of felt like I needed my news delivered by hand – to look out the window as some courier appeared in the field, coming from a distance so my feelings had time to discover themselves.

Page 18

On first meeting Vaneetha:

Walking back down Forty-second I felt extremely pleased to have invested my life with a certain short-term narrative interest.

Page 25

On his roommate Dan:

He pulled his knees to his chest. The lecture was over. At one time Dan had been a chem major and played bass in a bright droney band called Haiku d'├ętat. But what had he decided to live for, for now? His heavy-lidded and darkly bright eyes struck me as not dissimilar from sunglasses. He was wearing the green pajamas, same color as hospital scrubs, that he usually wore at night. He was the most catlike person of my acquaintance – efficient, aloof, compact.

Page 35

On happiness:

The regular alliance of happiness with idiocy has always been for me as a happy person one of the world's more painful features.

Page 37

On favoring the underdog:

Relations were less warm with dad, who mom and Al blamed in the divorce. My own sympathies were more with him, if only because in deserving them less, he obviously needed them more.

Page 48

On losing his job:

"Um, yes. I was just now fired. From Pfizer. Wow. Pfired! So I'm phucked!" But the p was silent so no one laughed but me.

Page 68

On the nature of pharmaceuticals:

"Ten years," dad was saying," and people won't be so suspicious of drugs. Sure, the Arabs might be. But we're chemistry. That's what we are. We just have to wait for this realization to trickle all the way down. Food, exercise, sexual intercourse, warmth – all these thing function like drugs. They modify your mood and perspective. That's how it's always been. Mark my words, this distinction between natural and artificial, when this is your brain but when this is your brain but then it's your brain on drugs – that will frankly come to be seen as so much twentieth century superstition. It's a last hangover from the – don't tell Charlie I said this – but from the old religious concept of the 'soul.'"

Page 79

This particular one is a battle I often fight. On Indecision itself:

I experienced a flashback to a childhood Thanksgiving. Probably dad did too. I'd love cranberry sauce, the savory stuffing, and turkey itself with such equality of love that after a gabbled grace I'd been unable to begin eating, and the more ludicrous the spell of indecision became, the harder break. I'd been salivating and paralyzed in front of my plate, plunged in what later came to be known as the Zone, unitl finally dad raised his fork at me saying "Eat! Eat! Dammit, eat!" So I'd shut my eyes, loaded my fork with mystery, and raised it toward the cave of my mouth. The tart surprise of the cranberries I could remember still.

Page 83

On Belgium and Germany:

At the same moment that in spite of her somewhat dusky appearance I asked Brigid whether she might be German, she said, "So are you are a philosopher?"

I laughed and said no, and she frowned and said, "How could you think so? Mostly I am from Belgium."

"Belgium!" When you have the good fortune of meeting a nice Belgian girl it really becomes necessary to confront her as a complex and unique being unlike any other in the world, because at least in my case you have no national stereotypes to understand her by. Or was Belgium sort of like Canada to America's France, so that an indefinable air of comedy clung to its existence and its residents were noted mainly as bland and amendable drinkers of veer? "Sorry. I'm not an ace with accents."

"But do you like Germans?"

"Well, you know, their philosophers more than for example…the Nazis."

Page 105

On athletics:

It had been a late summer Saturday, and we'd rented these sea kayaks like we'd been saying we would do all summer. "I like preserving our self-image as athletic people," Alice has said as she fitted the nylon skirt around the sill and took her plastic paddle in hand. "How infrequently do you think we can do sports before we have to admit that we never do?"

Page 132

On exotic food:

We ate our lunch in silence, and for me at least the fun of eating beetle larvae had gone out along with the novelty. In fact I felt earlier I'd mistaken novelty for fun.

Page 175

On goals:

I'm trying to complete the book by tomorrow, dawn of the summer solstice – up in the North the year's shortest day – since without arbitrary goals, fervently chosen, I don't know what I'd do with myself.

Page 235

1 comment:

Ed said...

Hey, I just read this book in one day earlier this week... I found it impossible to put it down. It obviously will appeal only to a certain demographic (fans of Dave Eggers or early Nick Hornby), but I'm pretty squarely in that demographic, so I *loved* it. Can't believe I never heard of it when it came out.

Anyway, thanks for posting the quotes.