Benjamin Kunkel’s lauded debut novel,
, chronicled the quarter-life crisis of a privileged twentysomething New Yorker with crackerjack wit — and, in doing so, diagrammed a belated coming-of-age scenario typical of our times. There’s no evidence the author has succumbed to the same paralysis afflicting his main character, however as Kunkel is co-founder of ambitious biannual journal n+1 , as well as contributor to such pubs as The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Dissent, and The Believer. About a year ago, Kunkel chucked life in Manhattan and headed south for Buenos Aires. On a recent visit back to the States, he met us poolside at the Angeleno to chat about n+1, the ins-and-outs of the Prius, and a strange afternoon with Joan Didion.
Flavorpill: What have you been doing in Buenos Aires?
Benjamin Kunkel: Writing, working on my Spanish. I’d wanted to get out of New York for a while.
FP: How long have you been down there?
BK: For about a year now, with some months back in the US to do reporting, tie up loose ends. I don’t know how long I’ll be down there. It’s kind of nice to be drifting a bit right now, in terms of my domicile.
FP: Does your money go farther there?
BK: Certainly further than in New York, yeah. But that really wasn’t the reason to go down there. I just was tired of being in New York. I felt I was a bit too close to the publishing industry, and that I’d rather go someplace where I can think about writing and not so much about publishing. Not that I was thinking too much about it, but I didn’t want to start.
FP: So it was a preemptive strike.
BK: Yeah, exactly.
FP: Is there a big expat scene in Buenos Aires?
BK: I don’t know. I’m not really a seeker out of scenes. I’ve certainly met some interesting expats down there. Historically, Argentina has been a relatively insular country, but I think it’s less so these days, partly because the currency’s cheaper. Before Peak Oil strikes, I don’t mind taking some relatively inexpensive flights down to South America. Although one ends up with very conflicted feelings about intercontinental jet travel. I mean, it seems a sort of sin.
FP: You feel bad because of the jet fuel?
BK: Yeah. Don’t you? Doesn’t everyone now?
FP: It hadn’t even occurred to me to feel guilty about that, but thank you for adding to my concerns.
BK: Doesn’t everybody in LA think about this stuff all the time? Some friend of mine said when he came out and visited old friends in LA, everybody had a baby and a Prius.
FP: That’s actually true. In Silverlake, at least, the babies and dogs are multiplying like fruit flies. And there are tons of Prius’s.
BK: I drove a Prius once and found it very hard not to speed because the motor’s so quiet… Plus they’re styled to be ugly so you don’t feel there’s anything hedonistic about driving them.
FP: When I saw the Prius for the first time I thought, “that’s such an ugly car. I would never drive that.” But then I saw Ryan Gosling getting out of one. Suddenly there’s this cool factor, and it doesn’t look so ugly to me anymore. The reality is it’s ugly, but because of the hip factor, it becomes more attractive. Isn’t it weird people can be swayed like that?
BK: It’s kind of heartening. It means ultimately, we could be satisfied walking around wearing sackcloth, and we would think we look great, very fashionable.
FP: So you’ve just finished a play.
BK: Pretty much. At least for now it’s finished. I’m just waiting to see what, if anything, happens with it. But I’ve been working on that, working on another book, and doing a lot of journalism, a certain amount of criticism too. I’ve probably got too many things going at once. There’s n+1 as well.
FP: You wear many hats. Is it easy for you to switch modes?
BK: It’s not as easy as I would have liked to think, and I’ve probably lost some time in the switching. It always takes a bit of time to become really immersed in what you’re doing, and I find whatever I’m not working on is the stuff that I think is relatively easy, and whatever I am working on is the stuff that seems hard.
FP: A case of the grass is greener… So when you decide to write a play, for instance, do you read a lot of plays? Or do you actually try and avoid stuff that’s in a similar territory to what you’re doing at the time?
BK: I’ve always enjoyed reading plays… so I didn’t really start reading plays anew when I wanted to write a play, but I started reading them with a different eye because everybody does their stage directions a little differently. You want to see how people are handling things, their pauses, how much direct address of the audience they use. It’s like anything. If you’re eating at a table, you look at it one way, and if you’re a carpenter who wants to make a table, you start looking at it differently.
FP: You founded n+1 with some college buddies. What spurred you to start something new?
BK: I think we founded the magazine because it seemed to us if we wanted a venue to exist in order to publish our best work, we had to create that venue.
FP: The Observer called n+1 “small but influential.” Ideally, what is it n+1 would influence?
BK: Oh, I mean, ideally it would influence the decisions taken by all the nation states in the world.
FP: So primarily political?
BK: Ideally it would influence child rearing, it would influence sexual practices, influence people’s diets, it would influence —
FP: A total overhaul of the human experience.
BK: Ideally, n+1 slowly but surely is bringing about a total overhaul of the human experience. That’s how influential it is. In ten thousand years, n+1 will just be in people’s DNA. No, I’m afraid we’re probably not that influential.
FP: What do you think the role of the intellectual is in society? Or what do you think it should be?
BK: On this, I kind of have a Maoist view. The intellectuals should become the masses and the masses should become intellectual. It would be great to live in a world where the distinction between intellectuals and other people was no longer really operative, where people just thought, “I like to talk about books and ideas, and I think ideas are important.”
FP: Do you feel the political is a driving force in what creates character? Class structure seems to be something that’s important to you in your fiction.
BK: Politics are always at least at the back of my mind and sometimes at the front of my mind, and I want not to forget about them when I’m writing. But I think it’s very hard to figure out in any very precise way how class and character fit together. One of the tricky things is feeling they do fit together and being unsure in what way how.
You know, Sartre was writing at the end of his life this enormous biography of Flaubert where he was going to explain Flaubert from both a Marxist and a Freudian perspective so you could understand Flaubert both in terms of all the great historical-political movements of the time as well as this very particular relationship with his brother, with his mother, with his father, with whatever sort of infantile neuroses he developed. And what I love about that is the project is so obviously a true thingm— all these things must ultimately fit together, but you know, Sartre never finished this book.
It seems impossible to describe people in the way we know they must exist which is simultaneously as people who are their parents’ children, who are a member of their class, of their society, of their profession and all of this. But I think the novel does a better job than anything else at describing people in a sort of accurately complex way. I don’t know that I’ve done that. Maybe in the future.
FP: At the opening of your short story, “Failure,” the narrator thinks maybe there are fewer faces to go around New York City than there are people, which reminded me of the Joan Didion essay, “Goodbye To All That,” where she tries to convince a guy to go to a party in the city by promising new faces, and he tells her there aren’t any new faces. Would you expound on that idea? Or if not that, then I wondered if you think there are just a few unique people in the world and most fall into types?
BK: That story was really about a guy encountering his double. The truth is I think there are as many faces in a city as there are people, and the only reason in this case there weren’t was because this other face was in some sense this guy’s own face… I don’t know how cynical I am about whether people are really individuals or not. I really don’t know how cynical I am. I feel like I’m probably a much more naïve writer than Joan Didion.
FP: Well, Joan Didion definitely has an all-knowing coolness about her.
BK: There was that huge blackout across the East Coast a number of years ago, and I happened to be interviewing Joan Didion for Newsday when the blackout struck. She was a great person to be doing an interview with then because suddenly, this great sinister mystery blooms when there’s no electricity between here and Canada. It seemed appropriate to be with her when that happened. She gave me some bottled water and sent me down the auxiliary stairs. It was a strange afternoon.
FP: For you, is there a particular art form that’s superior to all others? Or for instance, does the best song beat out the best painting?
BK: In practice it doesn’t have to, but if someone said to me, “You can never see a painting again in your life or you can never hear another note of music in your life,” I think the choice is very clear. And it would be for most people, right?
FP: Yeah, it is.