Monday, October 03, 2005

Benjamin Kunkel's socialism

Why, is Slate reviewing Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision? I may be the only one who believes this but I think Michael Agger’s piece is a rebuttal of A. O. Scott’s Times Magazine piece (“Among the Believers”). Scott’s piece (which I enjoyed, by the way) was on “small” literary journals, ones started by bright young things who, in Scott’s words, “get together to assemble pictures and words into a sensibility -- a voice, a look, an attitude -- that they hope will resonate beyond their immediate circle”. But, by design or not, Kunkel seems to emerge as the hero of the piece:

Benjamin Kunkel's first novel, ''Indecision,'' published last month, concerns a young man living in Manhattan and trying, as the title suggests, to figure out what to do with his life. He has a B.A. in philosophy and an active, if confusing, romantic life; he gets by on a combination of office work and parental subsidy. In his author's affectionate estimation, offered over a beer on a recent evening at a Brooklyn bar, this young man, whose name is Dwight Wilmerding, is ''kind of an idiot.'' Perhaps, but he may also be -- the critical response to ''Indecision'' suggests as much -- an especially representative kind of idiot. His plight, after all, is -- for people of his age and background -- a familiar one: an alienation from his own experience brought about by too much knowledge, too many easy, inconsequential choices, too much self-consciousness. Bred in a culture consecrated to the entitled primacy of the individual, he discovers that he lacks a self, a coherent identity, maybe a soul. He feels that he could be anyone. ''It wasn't very unusual for me to lie awake at night,'' he confesses, ''feeling like a scrap of sociology blown into its designated corner of the world. But knowing the clichés are clichés doesn't help you to escape them. You still have to go on experiencing your experience as if no one else has ever done it.''

In his essay in Slate, Michael Aggers takes up the same line about “lying awake at night”, which probably makes it the most resonating line in the book, a line that resonates with what Aggers calls “college-educated males of a certain questing persuasion”, that is. In Indecision, (which, I should mention, I haven’t actually read), the 28-year-old protagonist, Dwight Wilmerding is searching for gravity—lost in a sea of unbelief, he is searching for belief. Apparently he finds it in socialism, declares himself a “democratic socialist” and lives in Bolivia writing press releases on behalf of the proletariat. The key passage in Agger’s review, for me was this:

For starters, it's striking that Dwight's conversion to socialism takes place in South America. Latin America is a place where socialism has had a long, tangled history and, pace Venezuela, the talk that circulates about the regions these days tends more toward free-trade agreements than Maoist rebels. Kunkel has Dwight nod toward socialism's complications, but he never makes the embrace seem more than a nostalgic pose. It's a moral pleasure to be a socialist (especially if you're living in a capitalist economy): The hard part is to engage socialism as a rigorous, powerful, and fraught ideology. Dwight seems committed to his ethic of anti-consumerism, but what's less clear is how his passion for his cause translates into a viable intellectual framework for improving on the economic policies of our globalized world.

Aggers puts it really well. I’ve been taken to task when I’ve asserted that it is fashionable to be a socialist these days—fashionable because it gives a moral pleasure, especially in a capitalist economy. But engagement with socialism is hard and anti-consumerism is not socialism, for all the way in which people seem to equate it. Neither is socialism as compatible with individualism as people seem to think it is. This makes all the quasi-socialism that I find in my colleagues exactly what I suspect it is: a desire to feel superior to society which somehow somewhere also acts as an impetus to artistic creation while at the same time, actively engaging in a kind of non-engagement, that suits everybody just fine.

Egad! Here is Michiko Kakutani’s (favorable) review of Indecision, where she writes in the vein of Hoden Caulfield. Goodness, Mistress Michiko getting facetious? Halleluiah!! Also a review by Jay Mcinerney.

UPDATE: I was under the mistaken impression that Indecision came out in 2002. The impression has now been dumped.

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