Wavering Charmingly, Our Hero Meets His Match

The inability to make a decision turns out to be a rich comic subject.

I think.

In any case, it’s the problem of Dwight Wilmerding, the likably indecisive narrator of Indecision. One may wonder why someone likable has to be saddled with such a name (though maybe not, coming from an author stuck with Kunkel), but it more than justifies itself, if only by allowing Dwight, a former philosophy major, to make his e-mail address wilmerdingansich.

While theoretically seeking the thing-itself that will be his own life, Dwight lives with three fellow-alum buddies in the “welcoming squalor” of a loft on Chambers Street: “Out of everybody we knew our immaturity was best-preserved, we dressed worst and succeeded least professionally—and at times I could get into feeling that for the old crowd to set foot on the scarred linoleum of our kitchen must be like entering this circling, slow eddy in the otherwise one-way flow of time.”

One could quote endlessly from this book, which is made of almost nothing but good lines. It does, however, have a story: Dwight, of course, must Find His Way, make time flow in its proper direction, grow up—in short, choose a career or a direction or at least have some convictions, though he’s pretty happy as a techie solving simple computer problems for employees of Pfizer (until he is, as he says, “pfired”). He must also, of course, find a mate; at the moment, he’s serially monogamously sleeping with women who, due to the heterosexual-male shortage in New York, are too good for him. The current item is the beautiful, smart but possibly a little snobby Vaneetha, to whom he’s affectionate precisely because he doesn’t feel that much affection for her.

As is often the case with people who are promising past the age when fulfillment of the promise is supposed to be in progress, one of his few solid commitments is to his prep school, for which he’s class agent. In the course of e-mailing his classmates to get them to their 10th reunion, he’s had what he construes to be an invitation to visit from the woman who was clearly the crush of every boy there, Natasha van der Weyden, who’s living in Quito (helpfully, he tells us that’s key-toe and in Ecuador). Though he usually decides things, for lack of better criteria, by tossing a coin, this time he consults his older sister Alice, an anthropologist of such fiery lefty convictions that her decisiveness and authority are comical and also make her the true north on his wavering emotional compass. He adores her—perhaps too much. After Alice tells him to exercise caution—Natasha was actually her friend at the same school—she calls back and tells him to go.

The story loops in its chronology, so that from the first page we know he goes, but it’s not until much later that we know he more or less broke up with Vaneetha (by e-mail) before setting off; we know it’s post-9/11 (as all stories must let us know, these days, unless they’re pre-9/11); but it’s not until page 169 that we get the extraordinary Dwight-style rendition of the event, which occurred at the end of his first night with Vaneetha, on Ecstasy. As he and his roommates watch from their Chambers Street rooftop the flames from the first tower, Dwight calls out, “‘Hey! Another plane!’ I was delighted. ‘They’ve sent it to rescue the other—or it must be coming to help all the …. ’” And there the chapter ends, just as ever optimistic Dwight, of the “agreeable personality that had always made me so popular with others,” verges on recognizing that no, this is not good news.

By the time he goes to Ecuador, we also know that Dwight has just started on a drug that is supposed to cure his abulia (the clinical term for acute, chronic indecisiveness): a drug called Abulinix, though unless this is the first novel you’ve ever read, you’re reasonably sure “Abulinix” is a hoax perpetrated by his medical-student roommate, Dan. The profile of this putative drug makes for a great deal of amusing musing and optimism and, in particular, an e-mail from Dan in which he worries about “suicidal ideation” in users in whom “apparently the decision to end it all is the first important decision some people make. Naturally also the last.”

Dwight as a character is silly and sometimes shrewd as well as likable; as a narrator, he’s heaven: a little embarrassed but not ashamed or self-hating, so he can remain realistic in his assessments, and an observer with a winning mix of born-yesterday, well-look-at-this freshness and trustworthy worldly knowledge. That he’s funny, I doubt I need to mention; but he’s even, dare I say, intellectually stimulating. Like Vaneetha, I’d be happy to take him on as a wavering on-again, off-again boyfriend—except that, in the course of the novel, he so convincingly and appreciatively finds the woman he definitely wants. On the last page, she answers his proposal of marriage: “I’d like to. But not now. Maybe not ever. Really I don’t know.”

So if I can’t have the guy, I’ll settle for the book. Decisively.

Anna Shapiro’s third novel, Living on Air, will be published by Soho Press in May.