((n+1)+(a harsh critique of Indecision))/(Stefan Beck)
Them's fightin' words, Stef.
The fact is, I was not terribly moved by Beck's sneering non-indictments, such as "Kunkel and his ilk ... resemble nothing so much as professional college students. They live the dream of getting paid (however little it may be) for their glorified term papers." They get paid for glorified term papers? Er, exactly what is it you imagine the New Criterion publishes, Stef?
I was sympathetic to Beck's criticism that some of N+1's editors can be a little too cluelessly grandiose (and that essay on exercise that Harper's republished was just plain sloppy). Yes, Kunkel's Brazil piece in the Times could have been written by Dwight Wilmerding, the annoyingly self-indulgent hero of his novel. But there are worse crimes than erring on the side of self-indulgence in one's self-financed literary magazine (and associated endeavors).
As Tyler Zander noted, Beck is not just relentlessly, disproportionately bilious, he's ironically self-aggrandizing:
What is Beck doing in this essay except proving that he is the “real intellectual,” though without the quotes, of course? He’s exposed the pretenders here for all the world to see, and who is it that the glassy-eyed masses bestow their admiration upon after their former leaders have been stripped of their hipness?
Hopefully not The New Criterion, God forbid.
The extreme viciousness of Beck's vitriol seemed motivated by something other than the substance of what he was criticizing, and I wondered what the back story was. Did Beck and (the better-looking than Beck) Kunkel fight over the babelicious NYRB editor and former Kunkel-honey Elaine Blair or something? Was Beck not invited to Indecision's launch party? Something pissed Beck off.
(more after the jump)
Something like what I'm about to write about Indecision, which could be misconstrued as personal. The thing is, I can't judge N+1 without considering the novel written by its most prominent founder. I hate to dis on a first novel, but Kunkel is such a brilliant literary critic, I have been so impressed by some of his short fiction, and his novel was so over-praised (in his place of employment the NY Times, at least), that I feel OK about sharing a few candid thoughts about it, harsh as they may be. I've been sitting on these for months, so bear with me.
1. Basically, at the end the book turns into a manifesto, and since I think it's a manifesto for something laudable I think the book is admirable and ambitious. From a long speech Dwight makes toward the end, at his prep school reunion:
"Life is brief. And youth briefer than life. Except for some people. Lots of people, actually, especially in the third world, where lots of people die very young. For us, however, youth has been appallingly expanded, in our remarkable time... it seems to me that we, in this room, for reasons of cruel and unusual socioeconomic conditions, have an especially big range of decisions we could make, and so there is a particular burden. ...I would only say...that the weird thing about freedom to choose would seem to be that no one knows what to do with it unless they give it to others. ...On behalf of which ideology [democratic socialism] I mean to say that only when other people have the same freedom which we have devoted ourselves to squandering--only then will we really finally know what we should have done with ours in the first place. So let us remain faithful to those privileged kids we were by seeking to honor and cancel our condition by making it general throughout the world."
I think this is basically a good conclusion for a privileged white male to come to, and I admire Kunkel's aspiration to write a book that explicitly urges privileged white kids to take up democratic socialism.
2. That said, I think the execution of the book has some flaws. First and most glaring is the style. The book is overwritten from start to finish, loaded with unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, metaphorical verb constructions, and similes (sometimes difficult to visualize or merely obscure). I don't believe this is merely the annoying voice of an annoying protagonist, but a bad habit of precious writing.
(On the subject of annoying, Kunkel made several gestures in the book that I found extremely so: naming his fictional philosopher Otto Knittel (full name of Ben = Benjamin Otto Kunkel), giving the publisher of Dwight's sister's book as "n+1 Books," and most of all dedicating the book to n+1.)
3. The philosophy. I think that Dwight is supposed to be dumb, not fully understanding the philosophers he's read (hence the absurdly sophomoric misreadings). The problem is that he's inconsistently dumb. Sometimes he is quite smart, actually, as in the manifesto-speech above, or in this line:
"Now are you going to tell me how Ecuador is trapped in a spiral of dwindling commodity prices where it takes increasing amounts of their oil as well as shrimp and flowers to import the same amount of manufactured goods? Because I know that. My father is--or was--a high-level commodities dude, whereas my sister is an old-time leftist of some kind."
And then, fifteen pages later:
"I was only being friendly. I don't even know what's going on there in Israel and the other parts. I wash my hands of the whole thing. ... Look, I've known people who've known things about the Middle East--and it was never any good."
How can the same character say these two things?
I also considered it a bit of a dodge for Kunkel to manufacture a straw-man German philosopher to mock. Nor was it clear to me how that mockery was supposed to be either validated or rejected by the book's conclusion.
4. I could not figure out the structure. Why is there a prologue recounting action from the middle of the book? Why are the many extended flashbacks placed where they are, except that they contain background exposition that had to go somewhere?
5. What's with the chapter where he and his roommates do Ecstasy the night before September 11? What's with his incestuous desire for his sister?
The drug is a red herring, I get that. But instead there's a much less plausible explanation for everything where it turns out his sister tells Brigid to use Natasha to lure Dwight to Ecuador because he and Brigid might hit it off. That's completely outside normal human behavior, but it's revealed toward the end of the book almost without explanation. What's with that?
And other, similar things. Unfortunately, Dwight isn't a strong enough character to justify unlimited character exploration, which means that strong elements like these feel unresolved by the manifesto conclusion. They are unresolvable, of course, but with a stronger character, in a more character-driven book, they might not need to be resolved at all.
I was surprised that although I liked it, I didn't like it better. I guess I was holding Kunkel to a high standard, based on what I had already read by him. I really wanted Kunkel to write a great book and still believe he is capable of it. Indecision is just not that book.
UPDATE: After dutifully reading some of Beck's other writings, I am now of the opinion that he is just cursed with a chronically dyspeptic disposition. N+1 probably didn't do anything to warrant his near-hysterical nastiness other than have the bad luck to catch his eye. Beck is like one of those ranting psychos on the subway you silently pray won't come anywhere near you, or else you know you'll be in for ten minutes of unprovoked but still stinging, cruel, ad hominem harangue.