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No Future?

Two Young Novelists Try To Articulate The Emptiness Of Postcollegiate Limbo

Deanna Staffo

By John Barry | Posted 7/5/2006

Distinctive young writing voices are not easy to come by, especially in an age when people under 30 arenít reading all that much fiction to begin with. But Paul Neilanís recently released Apathy and Other Small Victories (St. Martinís Press) and Benjamin Kunkelís Indecision (Random House; now in paperback) may be hitting the right notes for a generation that has grown up in a truly intimidating era. Theyíre both books about 28-year-old American men who arenít doing much and donít really see much reason for doing anything at all about it. You canít really blame them: In a world where terrorism and global warming take up the front pages, taking it to the streets doesnít always feel like an option. But as both Kunkel and Neilan make clear, there is a voice out there: the millions of intelligent but uninspired young adults who have made their way through college, are locked in cubicles with dead-end jobs, and arenít sure what the world has in store for them. Nor are they sure they want to find out.

Kunkelís Dwight Wilmerding is probably the guy youíd most want to have a beer with. Bored out of his wits, living with his pals on Chambers Street in lower Manhattan, heís a scion of upper-middle-class parents who sent him to boarding school, divorced, and paid for his college. Dwight has an earnest, honest charm. He doesnít glorify or inflate himself; in fact, he has a particularly appealing mode of self-deprecation that may have sent him down a path heís unable to get out of.

For a first-time novelist, Kunkel has found his voice early: chatty, hip, but with an appealing nerdiness peppered with brief extracts from German philosopher Otto Knittel, whose work Dwight is slowly wending his way through. It makes the book a fast, funny read. Dwight has an attractive Indian fuck buddy, Vaneetha, whom he cares about, but not to the point where he calls her his girlfriend. He has a job at Pfizer that he hates but never wants to leave. In this somewhat vacant world, Kunkelís language has a seductive flair. The insights and pithy observations are buried in his prose, and occasionally life rears its head.

Indecision peaks halfway through, when Dwight meets his single dad for golf. That 20 or 30 pages is worth the price of the book, simply because itís the first literary confrontation in recent memory between baby boomers and a generation of offspring who arenít quite sure whatís being passed down to them. A weird terra incognita is slowly being mapped out. Dwight feels something between admiration and contempt for his dad, a retired commodities trader in the throes of bankruptcy.

The generation gap has all but disappeared here. Father and son are both neutralized by a society that has offered them nothing but possibilities. As they wander through the golf course and then home, where they both start to down shots of whiskey, Dad recalls what he calls ďthe zone,Ē a moment during Thanksgiving dinner when Dwight would be ďsalivating and paralyzedĒ in front of his plate, overcome by the overload of options. Itís a Proustian madeleine but without the cork-lined walls. There doesnít appear to be a time or place for any of these characters to come to terms with the spread before them.

You canít blame Kunkel for trying to turn this wasteland into something more productive. His character may be sitting around on Ecstasy, but the writer himself starts sweating by the ending and goes into a panic attack. Kunkel uses a fairly awkward conceit to reawaken his main character: Dwight takes a pill to cure his indecision and plunges into the concerns and jungles of the Third World. Then he changes his whole approach to life and love and ends with a speech that feels right out of Steinbeck or Sinclair. The problem is that Sinclair really wanted to tell us what life was like in a sausage factory. Kunkel is using Ecuador as a sort of personal therapy for Dwight. Maybe that tells us more about Americans than Kunkel even intended.

Kunkel is a talented writer as long as he stays on his own turf. When his characterís mind is green and empty, the writing moves on its own; when he starts trying to plant significance into the story, he tries too hard. The plotís conceitóthat Dwight has found a drug to cure him of his indecisionóis amusing on the back cover but doomed as a plot engine. Three quarters of the way through the book, hungover after a night of X-induced group sex, Dwight recalls staring out the window on the morning of Sept. 11, just when the planes fly into the twin towers. By then, the mojo is gone, and if you listen carefully you can hear Kunkelís agent whispering about movie rights. Or maybe heís just worried that Jonathan Safran Foer is getting the jump on the Sept. 11 market.

Paul Neilanís Apathy, a shorter novelette, is less ambitious than Indecision but also less flawed. Central character Shane is more of an outsider than Dwight, perhaps because heís in Portland, Ore. Shane finds himself in a dead-end job, alphabetizing forms for an insurance firm. His situation is Kafkaesque, especially when he finds himself accused of murdering his dentistís deaf wife. Thereís a hard-boiled, razor-sharp wit to Shane that never loses its edge. And as the story ends, and the character moves on, very little is accomplished. In that sense, Neilan sticks to his premise: If youíre apathetic, you stay apathetic.

As Neilan puts it, life is like an improvised situation comedy for these young Americans. In the workplace, galley slaves at the insurance company are ďyukking it up in their cubicles, throwing out their best geometric one-liners,Ē waiting for ďthat flash of comic gold.Ē Itís a world where giants of Western civilization have been cut and pasted into snippets of motivational mind candy. History gets castrated to sound bites.

Neilan uses the formula of a pulp detective story to pump up his character but doesnít try to drain the characterís driving emotion of apathy. At the very end, after beating the murder rap, Shane gets on the bus and leaves town. If Kunkel tries to energize his character and even convert him, Neilan leaves his character wandering off into the horizon, having saved his ass temporarily, but without resolving the essential hopelessness of his situation. Itíd be too easy, though, to call Neilan the better writer. Kunkel tries to do more, and misfires more often. That can be a virtue in a first-time novelist.

Is there a connection between these two 28-year-olds, then, that might presage a new age of post-Sept. 11 literary slackers? Donít rush to conclusions. Ivan Goncharovís Oblomov, James Joyceís Stephen Daedalus, and Frederick Exley, in his ďfictional memoirĒ A Fanís Notes, all jump to mind as famous young white guys who deserve a kick in the ass. And then, of course, thereís Holden Caulfield, perpetually pounded into high-schoolersí heads as the prototype teenage rebel.

Neither Dwight nor Shane is about to head into literary immortality. But as slackers they may be worth listening to. They donít spit in your face, look toward the waves, or drink themselves into oblivion. In some ways theyíre more mature than their parents were at their age, probably because they know that theyíre up against much more. If thereís an enemy, itís hard for them to put a face on it, and the world surrounding them is so convoluted that even trying to explain whatís wrong is scary. Shane finds himself wrapped up in a ďvast conspiracy,Ē but by the end he only has himself to protect. Dwight is also cheerfully cynical, but, as his sister notes, heís also protecting ďa private reservoir of truth.Ē Itís not certain in either character what exactly that reservoir is, but given whatís going on around them, you canít blame them for keeping it out of circulation. In the world of cubicles and blogs, with very little to grab on to emotionally, apathy and indecision are survival tactics. Neilan and Kunkel may be on their way to articulating that predicament.

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