Have you begun to pretend to read this season’s hot literary debut, Indecision, by Benjamin Kunkel? To some readers—especially those who wrote reviews on Amazon—Mr. Kunkel’s book speaks directly to them. For my old roommates and me, it’s more like it speaks directly about us, and our reactions to the book range from flattered to joking that when the book comes out in England, we should sue for libel.
Indecision’s gotten glowing reviews, like Jay McInerney’s in The New York Times Book Review, that called it “a post-9/11, postironic novel: a tentative response to David Foster Wallace’s call for a new generation of sincere anti-rebels.” How Mr. McInerney, onetime generalissimo of the marching Bolivian Army, became the arbiter of sincere anti-rebels is another issue.
Then there’s Salon’s recent interview with the stubbly yet boyish author as an expert source on young men’s “romantico-sexual” problems. Of course, producer Scott Rudin spent a reported seven figures to option Mr. Kunkel’s book for the movies. Random House even bought an ad on the back of n+1, the lit and culture journal Mr. Kunkel co-founded, that reads, “Brilliant. Funny. Silly. Serious … +1.”
But even with all that buzz, it’s doubtful anyone is reading the book quite as closely as my old roommates and I.
Two of my roommates went to college with Mr. Kunkel, and while I don’t recall having met him, I’ve been aware of him for as long as I can remember. These days, his success prompts that terribly familiar commingling of pride and jealousy. He wrote a good book and it’s getting a lot of attention. What’s not to envy?
But my feelings about Indecision are complicated since, for whatever reason, Mr. Kunkel chose to set part of his book in my old apartment. If you knew my roommates or me in that era, you might even be prompted to think that Mr. Kunkel set part of his book in our lives. The Petri dish in which he grew Dwight, his privileged, sexually confused, self-absorbed meta-manchild, was my living room. Mr. Kunkel took little effort to disguise the loft on Chambers Street that I shared with three friends. We lived there out of economic necessity (a student and recent grads) and friendship (three of us went back as far as elementary school). With the help of a non-union carpenter, we built rooms (without ceilings), and we filled the place with our parents’ hand-me-downs. Sometimes we threw parties; sometimes it felt like we were living in a reality show without cameras.
Writers, of course, are shameless samplers and remixers of their friends’ and families’ lives. (Diddy hides his source materials better than most authors.) But it’s a real drag to hear Scott Simon on NPR describe your fictional fifth roommate as living among “disconnected souls,” or to read Michiko Kakutani describe the way Dwight and his “slacker friends live in a dormlike apartment, spend a lot of time listening to the Dead, ingest tons of drugs and hold lots of zeitgeisty conversations about Truth and Love and Meaning.”
Sensationalism! We never listened to the Dead. (Maybe we put in “Ripple” once, like, ironically.)
Here’s how Mr. Kunkel describes our third-floor walk-up between Church and West Broadway: “Other friends lived scattered around the city in ones and twos, and this had allowed us four to provide, in the welcoming squalor of our living room, a kind of community center for the school-days diasporae. Poker was played, friends were entertained, TV got watched and color-commentated. 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. Outside was the streaming traffic, the money bazaar, the trash-distributing winds with their careerist velocities. And here inside Chambers St. was this cozy set of underachievers.”
In one interview, Mr. Kunkel claimed that “none of the characters, including Dwight, have originals in life,” yet it still stung a little when one character said, “You know what I think of when I come by Chambers St.? Nineteen ninety-three, the boys during freshman year. The greasy hair, the deliberate aimlessness.”
Reductive. Insulting. Condescending. Grating … +1!
When we lived there, it practically was 1993. We took our lease in 1996, and while our kitchen floor was scarred and we did watch a lot of TV, we weren’t aimless or unsuccessful. Everyone there was either in school or employed. Our immaturity, such as it was, could be explained by our ages—19 to 22—not our late 20’s like that of our fictional roommate, Dwight.
The apartment did function as a community center for classmates and friends, but that wasn’t out of fear of growing up. We wanted it that way. Despite typical roommate dustups, we liked our little community: the huge communal meals; the way friends crashed anytime they were in town—sometimes for months (O.K., we didn’t all like that); how everyone we knew had our keys; how, when the phone rang, it could be for us or for anyone else who’d told someone, “If I’m not home, try me at Chambers.”
For me, Mr. Kunkel’s choice of setting would’ve been fine had he not included a 9/11-eve Ecstasy party during which Dwight’s roommates and friends pledge “More good, less bad!” and “Tenderness in the world! Especially the Middle East!”, only to wake up to planes crashing into the Twin Towers.
It must’ve been hard for Mr. Kunkel to resist using 9/11 as the heaviest bit of baggage for his already weighted-down protagonist. But 9/11 as the ultimate hangover is far too glib—in a sincere anti-rebel sort of way. (Not as glib as a flipbook of a man ascending the North Tower, but little is.)
I don’t recall fixating on my indecision over “romantico-sexual” relations that day. I was too concerned for the friends who’d taken over the lease on Chambers (our lower-Manhattan Gemeinschaft had disbanded by 2001); the families with kids in the building; our former landlords, who lived and ran a business mere yards from Ground Zero; friends evacuated from their office on Liberty Street; and the huge fucking hellmouth into which thousands died on a perfect September morning.
But that was a long time ago. The landlords have since sold the building. A hauling company took away our sheetrock walls and the scarred linoleum floor. The loft on Chambers is probably some banker’s pied-à-terre. However flawed his depiction of our life there, Mr. Kunkel’s book does preserve our little collective forever—or until the remainder bin of history claims it.
But when I think back on that time, I don’t remember a “slow eddy” that spawned a generation of hyper-aware, indecisive weenies. I remember my home. It was the place I lived with my three closest friends for a few years before we all moved on. Even fictionalized, Chambers will always be the four of us, though I guess now it’s us +1.