Thursday, November 03, 2005


Dwight Wilmerding is an erstwhile employee of the Pfizer Corporation, having been fired from an ambiguously unsatisfying technical-support job that, come to think of it, was probably going to be outsourced anyhow. Listless, unmoored, and an altogether likeable lay-about, Dwight is the feckless 28-year-old protagonist in Benjamin Kunkel’s first novel Indecision. Kunkel, 32, is one of the founding editors of n+1, a ‘little magazine’ in the mold of a Partisan Review circa. 1940’: a cadre of aspiring New York Intellectuals serious about literature and political and cultural criticism. It should go without saying, then, that Indecision should be a fictional vehicle to push his thus far imbibed political idiosyncrasies, and on a crass level it is. But Indecision turns out to be more+1, philosophic and cleverly comic at length, though evocative and poignant when the narrative permitted.

Our aforementioned hapless narrator suffers from abulia, “Loss or impairment of the ability to make decisions or act independently”, a fittingly postmodern condition which, fittingly enough, has a postmodern biomedical cure, namely the drug Abulinix. So racked with indecision Dwight is that he’s resorted to flipping a coin to determine his actions – yet somehow still ends up feeling ambivalent. The root of this irresolution, it can be gleaned, is Dwight’s overall sense that, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, liberal capitalism seems ineluctably directionless, with no end in sight, or impedance in path, and certainly no morality at its core. All this seems to imply that his particular life is without consequence.

Wryly glomming over what his maybe-possibly-girlfriend Vaneetha has just said, Dwight has resigned himself to being just another cliché:
I knew she was right. It wasn’t very unusual for me to lie awake at night feeling like a scrap of sociology blown into its designated corner of the world. But knowing the clichés are clichés doesn’t help you to escape them. You still have to go on experiencing your experience as if no one else has ever done it.
And then there is the mise en scene in which Dwight generally retreats to: New York City, Chambers St., with four other unambitious yet overeducated twenty-somethings cocooned in an atmosphere of eternal adolescence and irresponsibility. They wear their cultivated infantilism like a badge of honor; “Out of everybody we knew our immaturity was best-preserved, we dressed worst and succeeded least professionally.” Kunkel evokes a sentiment that is ubiquitous to this modern condition -- that of the young professional trying to evolve in a culture obsessed with youthfulness. But beyond the Chambers St. windows existed another world Dwight is understandably wary of:
Outside was the streaming traffic, the money bazaar, the trash-distributing winds with their careerist velocities. And here inside Chambers St. was the cozy set of underachievers.
Martin Heidegger show’s up disguised as Otto Knittel, a philosopher whose book Dwight is unhurriedly reading. One of the intuitive aphorisms in Der Gebrauch der Freiheit – or The Uses of Freedom – is “Procrastination is our substitute for immortality” because “we behave as if we have no shortage of time.” And who of us hasn’t felt the tugging in-temporality of procrastination? As such, Kunkel infuses Dwight with a Socratic inquisitiveness that is both witty and naïve. Dwight is never without an ironic turn of phrase and -- though, I suppose, this may have been Kunkel’s aim -- isn’t as guileless as he professes.

When one of Dwight’s roommates, a putative medical student, offers him Abulinix for his indecision, Dwight contains his enthusiasm, since an otherwise decisive yes would disqualify him. But it’s a clinical trial and likely side-effects are bound to be prohibitive to his taking the drug, right? No. Dwight dives in headlong hoping, in the process, to figure out his ‘romantico-sexual’ situation with Vaneetha, his laissez affair, if awkwardly loving, relationship with his recently divorced parents, his eerily incestuous proclivities towards his older sister, and, more chiefly, his uncertain life trajectory.

Dwight’s father, a commodities trader, plays the perfect foil to Dwight’s sister, a leftist inclining anthropologist. His mother being an Episcopalian vegetarian adds a similarly whacky layer to the already comic plot. So, it is finally his mother who sagaciously notes of the city that “you can become more inert than you notice. You can mistake the city’s commotion for your own.”

Dwight has something to chew over.

A fast approaching prep school reunion also inserts an element of urgency into Dwight’s predicament. Impetuously, he decides to fly to Ecuador to visit an old prep school classmate named Natasha, an intelligent, leggy Belgian who is the possessor of great pulchritude. The excursion, moreover, doubles as an excuse to experience the unfettered effects of Abulinix. Dwight then ends up in an Ecuadorian jungle with a native guide and a Belgian Argentine named Brigid who, coincidently, happens to be a doctoral student in anthropology with socialist leanings.

All this leads to an historical primer on the social externalities of Neo-imperialist aspirations and what, as a consequence, they excrete on benighted third world denizens. Little -- though admittedly just enough -- is said about the pervading emptiness of modern society’s secular materialism; the inaudibly incessant hum of purportedly time-saving technology, enveloping any meaningful sense of identity. Little is said of this because, I think, Kunkel was attempting to convey an astutely counterintuitive argument regarding something else.

First, concerning our choices and their concomitant freedoms, Kunkel’s protagonist says:
But my tastes, my interests, my relationships and beliefs are all really mediocre and typical… And so as of today what I’ve decided with utter decisiveness is just to resign my self to mediocrity and being totally clichéd.
Therefore, to embrace mediocrity, to resigns ones life to low expectations, is to accept life for what it is, contingency, absurdity, irrelevance. Since Dwight believes “it’s going to be ugly if at forty-two there’s still this like holy grail I’m hoping to trip over.” Here Kunkel renders, realistically, the common realization that one must pack-up his hopes and dreams and submit to the imperatives of the ‘real’-world. Dwight goes on to joke that a career as motivational speaker on the topic of mediocrity would be the next logical extension. Imagining himself at a lectern, Dwight admonishes thusly:
Our life sucks only because we wish it didn’t meanwhile we morally betray the world’s laboring and unemployed poor people in the nation of Ecuador and elsewhere by our failure to enjoy the fruits and nuts of our privileged consumer lifestyle. We have to be happy with this arrangement, so that some one can be.
Understandably, this sounds grim worldview. Yet Kunkel is coming another-way-round to make his argument. The trek in the Jungle, the primer in political economy, the chemical effects of Abulinix and other hallucinogenic miscellany, contribute to Dwight’s awareness of his choices and their concomitant freedoms. Just as he is free to choose the beige, existentially barren conveyor-belt to a consequence-free modernity, he is likewise free to choose a thankless and peripatetic existence of little to no remuneration fighting the Neoliberal hegemony. But exactly how Kunkel arrives to this conclusion is less persuasive than one would hope, and even less convincing than Kunkel himself lets on.

The deus ex machina, an Edenic folic in tropical bucolic with an ersatz Eve and apple, substituted for with a tomate de arbol, strains credulity when Dwight, with chemical-induced alacrity, signs up to serve in the fight for Global Justice. Where it not so swift and incongruous, Dwight’s decision could have at least been compelling.

Although, to be fair, Kunkel paints with broad strokes competently, and is even able to deliver a pointillist’s accuracy with impressionistic accounts. For example, even though I’m not clearly sold on Dwight’s conversion, this passage seems apt:
I had the other tomate de arbol in my hand. Gently I started peeling it. “Ah fuck, how will we ever be happy again, Brigid? I was afraid of this happening.” I sliced the skin off the fruit in red-yellow-green scabs. But this was only on autopilot and beneath or through the careless actions of my hands I was looking at something else. It was like flying over water and then when you looked down the ocean the skim of mirror was yanked off, so that the water became transparent, and there the sea was filled with what you knew had always been there: the rubbery gardens and drowned mountains, the creatures from plankton up to nekton, the swimming bodies and the unburied skeletons, and now you—or I—I saw it all at once. And so in the fucked-up San Pedrified way the entire world system of Neoliberal capitalism disclosed itself to me, and I felt somewhat grim.

Dwight, meanwhile, becomes an endearing and charming character with a singularly unique voice.

Despite finding it clumsy and misshapen to begin with, Indecision turned out to be a terrifically appealing read as it worn on. Dwight’s innocence and charisma are undeniable, and the structure of the novel integrates his relative progress adeptly. Kunkel’s prose, equal parts circuitous erudition and Hemmingwayesque succinctness, begins somewhat flat and too-pleased with its own cleverness, while eventually cresting to a terse, cause-and-effect essentialism that allows this type of crafty precocity not to dwarf the narrator. At times, Kunkel was in danger of breaching that Chinese Wall between the reader and himself. Dwight is rightly permitted these breaches but the author isn’t.

Altogether, Kunkel’s bildungsroman introduces the reader to an intriguing and not easily forgettable character in Dwight, a character trying and failing to make his decisions matter to the world, when, in the end, they should matter to him.

Art and the Critic: Part 2

It should only make sense, then, to anticipate the coming push-back against the preponderance of adulation the Canadian indie-scene has been the object of lately. As groups like Arcade Fire, New Pornographers, Dears, Stars, Metric, The Stills, Tegan and Sara (just to name a tendentious few) are lauded over, saturation of the all things indie-Canadiana will likely wake mordant detractors from their dogmatic slumber. Moreover, the general truncation of necessary criticism and the ascendancy of less than talented, but more efficiently marketed, apparatchiks won’t help matters.

Yet this outcome is to be expected. Industry has historically been canny at co-opting and digesting the Nouvelle Vague. However, those with better taste cannot be seen to enjoy what, all of a sudden, becomes universally accepted. Public sentiment therefore acts as a type of irrelevance barometer from which the critic can gauge and then, from this analysis, take leave from the banality of groupthink. A critic, thus, finds his niche in the oppositional judgments of what standards of taste currently prevail, or failing those, which should. The piquant irony is that the critic is most often the one who helped expound prevailing orthodoxies of taste. This ambivalence betrays a disjunction.

In some top-self publications this disjunction has shown itself. Writing in Stylus, an online publication of music and film criticism, Ian Mathers has a few curt things to say about indie music, even mentioning some bands of Canadian extraction:
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with indie music, and if that’s all you listen to then yes, this or the Arcade Fire probably sounds as catchy as all get out – but to the average person out there who doesn’t (for example) read Stylus, this still sounds like every other hotly tipped mess that most people don’t like, not because we privileged few have “better” “taste” or something equally smug, but just because most people are bored by this sort of music. It is not a badge of superiority or mark of inferiority to feel differently. But it would certainly be easier for others to tolerate if this was actually any good.
One has to concede that indie-rock tends to be an incestuous claque of the cognizant; Mathers’s point should be taken. I’m not convinced, however, that ‘most people are bored by this sort of music’ or that it’s less tolerable because it’s not good. (Broken Social Scene is selling to exactly the type of people it shouldn’t be selling to)

Mathers’s concern arises out of a reprisal of You Forgot it in People (YFIIP), which he likens to someone unwittingly receiving a golden shower and being told it was rain; and which placed 7th on Stlyus’s own top 50 of 2000-2005. So maybe he just disagrees with his colleagues’ taste, and that’s reasonable; but then in the reader-response section Mathers goes on to say,

I'm a strong believer in the idea that if you love an album, nothing anyone says should (or can) count against that. I also think a fair number of the people who hyped this record don't fall into that category, though, and that genuine love for the whole thing is a little thinner on the ground than some would claim.

Which would be true had we the empirical evidence. Mathers, then, is not only questioning the psychological motives of those who may be strong believers of YFIIP, he’s also throwing into doubt Stylus’s methodology or, more importantly, credibility in making Best-of lists altogether. What stock should we place in Stylus if their seventh significant album (out of a list of fifty) of the last five years has ‘thin’ support on the ground?

And this may be the case. Mathers may be right. But the weight of evidence supports a contrary conclusion: That Mathers just doesn’t like YFIIP while nearly everyone else at his publication does.

Indeed there is nothing wrong with Mathers distaste for Broken Social Scene’s aesthetic meandering, or his sentiment that ‘most people are bored by this sort of music’. Mathers criticism, although, seems to want to have it both ways. So the right brain is hearing it and saying it ‘still sounds like every other hotly tipped mess’, but the left brain is saying its ‘aimless’and ‘structurally it’s a mess’ and ‘aimless’. Ultimately, Mathers’s right brain should be listening to what his left brain is interpreting -- and vice versa -- that way they’d both be sated. What is aimless and structurally a mess to the left brain is novel and remarkable to the right brain, and what is ‘like every other hotly tipped mess’ to the right brain would please the autocracy and desire for familiarity of the left brain. (This metaphor has been unduly stretched)

Insofar as Mathers is exasperated by Broken Social Scene stylistic muddle, he is equally, if not more so, exasperated by the encomiums heaped on YFIIP. Here -- channeling Thalia, our muse of sarcasm -- is Mathers on this score:

This is it? This is the great revolution? This is what topped the critics’ charts, inspired a million rapturous articles and blog posts and personal testimonies? This? This rancid stew of sour indie self-regard, the disingenuous assurance that no, now we’re making pop music (so for once it’ll be good, lol)

It is fairly clear that Mathers’s distaste for Broken Social Scene is in part related to the genuflecting praise they receive. But why should it be any other way?


If reviews come out nem con in the favor of a particular artist and, subsequently, this results in that artist’s ascension, questions of relevance logically reveal themselves. The critic now has a chance to pours scorn on the artist and, inexplicably, the audience, who end up playing useful idiots. Why should this be so?

Well, this phenomenon speaks to the rational fear of the covetous and insular critic – who, at times, is indistinguishable from a booster. (Wink) Once underground music becomes accessible to the mass culture it is somehow seen as losing its aura, pace Walter Benjamin. The mechanical reproduction of it, and its social visibility, the critic argues, degrades its authenticity. This, of course, is entirely independent of the actual creative enterprise of plying ones trade as an artist; they, no doubt, have their own demons to wrestle with. But what is essential to understand is that, in effect, the critic is saying ‘because music I, at one point, thought was culturally significant is being listened to by the lower-brow and obtusely appreciative, the music now offends my sensibilities’.

This is in fact what the critic is saying -- something we’ve all said one time or another out of covetousness for a particular cultural objet d'art only a few of our close friends were astute or privileged enough to know about first. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t bask in my cognizance when I listened to Feel Good Lost, assured that I was in the Know (with infinitesimal pockets of others) months and years before anyone else -- people I gladly turned my nose to. And yes, there was a usurped pang in my chest when someone brought up the fact that they were already listening to Broken Social Scene two months before I was -- and then there was the contained shock when they said they no longer listened to them; likely as a result of my listening to them.

So this pantomime of sophistication, that my art is better and more avant-garde than yours, is nothing if not predictable. But the assertion that just because something is popular it therefore lacks relevance is wrongheaded. (Notwithstanding democratic elections in countries saddled with dictatorships) If so, nearly all classical music, from Renaissance to Baroque to the Romantics to Contemporary Avant Garde, would have no cultural value. Bartok, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Schoenberg especially, are still relevant today -- although in markedly different ways.

And yet the detractors do make sound arguments. That popularity may be its own justification, that prefabrication and mass distribution deracinates the DIY ethic of music in general and indie rock specifically, and that loss of artistic autonomy takes away something authentic in the process are all arguments that have found no easy response. Yet at the same time these arguments raise questions that are structural and indissoluble within the context of art and commerce.

Should artists live in penury to remain authentic? Why can’t being accessible mean something more than just selling-out? Is authorial sincerity in popular art always required, or even detectable? These are all difficult questions to interrogate. But each day the artist, the critic, and the audience are doing the calculus and responding with their actions. These questions are also eternal challenges that won’t be brought to any finality, and shouldn’t hoped to be, otherwise the whole enterprise of art would lapse into solipsism. We can see the forest for the trees or we can just see the trees. I’m a big fan of the forest -- and the trees.