by Americas young men Nick McDonellsThe Third Brother
and Benjamin Kunkels
the rising generation is in mild crisis. Said crisis stems from having too much, knowing too much, and having nothing to do. Parents and siblings are useful in this regard they can arrange jobs, finance trips, fix up potential lovers to fill the time as are institutional structures like schools, or indeed school reunions. If youre really stuck, you can always join the global exodus from the First World to the Third, to some exotic and delicious retreat, where you can take Ecstasy with backpackers from all over the world Sydney, Oslo, Jerusalem and Long Island, too. Then you can go home and write a novel about it.
How much of a sense of humor you have about this mild crisis depends on who you are. If you are Nick McDonell, the boy wonder who has only this year reached his majority but whose first novel, Twelve, published when he was a mere 17, was an international best-seller, then you dont see much thats funny about it at all. If youre Benjamin Kunkel, on the other hand, slipping into the unreliable old age that lurks beyond 30, you cant stop joking about the whole situation. Its a matter of how knowing you are about knowing.
To review these novels together is in some sense unfair: What they have in common buzz, drugs, travel, a glancing treatment of 9/11, a smooth underpinning of parental cash is central to both but defines neither, or defines them only in the negative. No individual embodies his Zeitgeist, thank God; and for all his ambition, McDonells protagonist, Mike, is as peripheral to the hip scene around him as the perennially inactive and indecisive Dwight Wilmerding is in Kunkels Indecision. Both young men, so similar and yet so different, watch and record. From this, whatever significance these novels can muster will emerge.
One way in which the two books differ is in their ultimate success. Nick McDonell is clearly talented, and highly accomplished, given his youth. That he can out-write any of his peers seems certain. His prose is tight, in a post-post-Hemingway, almost parodic, sort of way, and his novel is delivered in short, punchy chapters. The problem is that Mike is just a kid, and that McDonell is perhaps not sufficiently distanced from such a kid not quite knowing enough to have any irony about him. For example: The day before he left for Hong Kong, Mike was worried. For a day and a half his parents had not been speaking to each other with such cruelty that Mike became apprehensive about their future and the future of his family. Worrying slowed him down, though, so he tried to think of better times. It is hard to see how Mikes parents mutual silent treatment could qualify as such cruelty, but thats neither here nor there. More problematic is the jejune inadequacy of Mikes response: His worry is shallow, and his response to his worry is shallow, and McDonell seems to have no comment upon that shallowness. Which leaves us, well, on the surface.
Its easy to skate through The Third Brother. Its plot is highly dramatic, its execution impressively sketchy. The first half of the novel in which Mikes summer job for a magazine in Hong Kong takes him to Bangkok, where he hangs out with local journalists and hippie backpackers, survives some brushes with the law, and witnesses some ugly stuff is more patiently and convincingly unfolded than what follows, although even at its most lingering, the story is brusque, its characters wafer-thin. When Mike returns home, its to disaster: His parents have been killed in a house fire and his brother is unhinged. In the scant hundred pages remaining, still more will go wrong, all at breakneck speed. The third brother of the title is the creation of Mikes brother Lyle, who attributes the fire to this imaginary figure. But no substance, no resonance accrues to this creation: I have told you almost all there is to know about him. He is a cursory figment.
Nick McDonell will doubtless write more and better books. He will in time distinguish between the laconic and the superficial. Hemingway famously wrote that most of a story, like most of an iceberg, is largely submerged: You see only the tip, but the whole entity is essential. This is an iceberg without ballast, a novel without depths. A silly novel. Which might be easier to bear if McDonell were funnier. Sometimes, it seems he might be being funny (Mikes girlfriend, Jane, was a very good student and also good at sex, a combination that Mikes father once told him was not unusual), but then again, McDonells tonal shifts often make it difficult to tell.
Benjamin Kunkel, however, is funny on purpose. His gentle comedy is Indecisions greatest strength. Theres more than an echo of Lucky Jim in the novels hapless anti-hero, the blithely insignificant Dwight Wilmerding; just as there are echoes of significance in his insignificance. Wilmerdings voice solipsistic, spoiled, self-knowing, foible-full has much charm, exasperating as it is; and the guy is a mediocre jerk in an apologetic, even winning, way. Theres a fine tradition, now, of such young men, from Kingsley Amis Jim Dixon down through Nick Hornbys various rogues.
The thing thats impressive here is Kunkels wholehearted commitment to the character: He never strays from Dwights syntax and diction, even though that makes for a book dense with impressive clunkers. Comedy lies in this grammar inadvertent for Dwight, presumably deliberate for Kunkel. For example: We lived in pasteboard cubicles and weird dorm-style intimacy which kind of enforced an obscurish connection between my home life and my [work] days at Pfizer, where the cubicle was also the unit. Or: I was particularly fixated on her face (so sharp-boned and precise, but with a pleasant suggestion of former plumpness everywhere smudging it faintly with voluptuous life) and happily analogous body. Or: Eventually the three of us stopped for lunch at some random epitome of nowhere. We believe in this guy because he writes so badly, so knowingly badly, and it sounds both funny and real: Kunkel happily prepared to sacrifice any literary élan to Dwights postDavid Foster Wallace middle-management-speak horrors is a great ventriloquist.
At the novels outset, Dwight is coming up to his 10th high school reunion (hes a prep-school lad, graduate of the fictional St. Jeromes). He has a casual girlfriend named Vaneetha, with whom he has sought consolation since the eve of 9/11. He has his job working in tech support at Pfizer. His future is cheerfully inauspicious.
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In order to make a story of Dwights nothingness, Kunkel creates an elaborate, highly contrived plot, at once predictable and unpredictable. A series of manipulations and suggestions leads Dwight to an experimental (and fictional) drug said to stop chronic indecisiveness, and near-simultaneously to Quito, Ecuador, home of a high school crush named Natasha, who summarily vanishes. Here Dwight will embark upon a random (but ultimately far from random) foray into the jungle with a Belgian-Argentine grad-school dropout named Brigid. The plot is, if possible, sillier than the plot of Nick McDonells novel; but Dwight, and Kunkel, are so busy winking at the reader that this silliness is almost forgivable, even enjoyable. Only at the novels conclusion, when Dwight seems to undergo some halfhearted but apparently sincere political conversion, does he, and the novel with him, succumb to mawkishness: Whats happiest, observes Dwight, is just to be alive and sensitive when it comes to feeling the world, and if what your senses, honed beyond usefulness, end up registering is so much suffering out there that you become lightheaded with it at times well, those senses can still be used for extracting pleasures from fruits, nuts, beverages of all kinds, words on a page, a loved mammal in your arms, music (including sad kinds), and anyway this is only the tip of a list anyone could assemble. The diction (beverages of all kinds) is surely intended to indicate Dwights, and Kunkels, irony here; but the sentimentality, banality and unexceptionable earnestness of Dwights position ultimately trump any attempts to ironize, and we are left at the end baffled by the strong-hearted, teary-eyed liberal who has emerged from Wilmerdings sluggish soul.
Then again, the novel, accomplished and witty as it is, does not in spite of blurbs on the jacket protesting its seriousness offer much in the way of real reflection. Dwight may be more diverting and more richly conjured than McDonells Mike, but he is similarly null. To muse, even amusingly, upon ones nullity doesnt relieve one of it. Thats just fine, but its as far as it goes. Like Dwights father, one wants to shout Dont make a career out of your childhood! Kunkel is clearly smart enough, and courageous enough as a writer, to go farther.
THE THIRD BROTHER | By Nick McDonell | Grove Press | 267 pages | $22 hardcover
INDECISION | By Benjamin Kunkel | Random House | 256 pages | $22 hardcover