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An American in Buenos Aires

Benjamin Kunkel on the death of the novel, lessons from Argentina's economic collapse and the merits of psychoanalysis.
Ben Kunkel

Benjamin Kunkel at La Poesia in San Telmo, Buenos Aires. (Photo: Jeanne Park)

Benjamin Kunkel exploded onto the literary scene in 2005 with the publication of his critically received debut novel. “Indecision,” a satirical romp about a 20-something slacker who finds himself in the jungles of Ecuador, was hailed by Jay McInerney in a front-page article of The New York Times Book Review as the “funniest and smartest coming-of-age novel in years,” and established Kunkel as a writer to watch. Kunkel, now 37, currently resides in Buenos Aires, and is at work on a follow-up novel, in addition to contributing essays and criticism across a broad spectrum of subjects for n+1, the literary-cultural magazine he co-founded with Keith Gessen, Mark Grief and Marco Roth in 2004.

I sat down with Kunkel on a recent trip to the Argentine capital to discuss his forthcoming projects, the global sovereign debt crisis and his adopted country’s love affair with psychoanalysis.

Jeanne Park: What are you working on now?

Benjamin Kunkel: I’ve been revising and then setting aside and then revising again a play for a few years. And I’m trying to revise it once more. And I’ve got a few little articles that I’m working on. The main thing that I’m working on is another novel.

Park: What can you tell us about your second novel? Is it a satire?

Kunkel: No, it’s in a very different key [than “Indecision”]. It’s a much less cheerful book. It’s really about a group of friends and there’s some love between them, some sexual love, I suppose. It’s about the faltering of friendships and romantic relationships. I’ve got to think of some sort of pithier description of it than that.

n+1 magazine

Park: In addition to writing fiction, you write essays and criticism for n+1 and other publications. How would you describe the difference in writing one to the other?

Kunkel: Well, the main thing is that whatever I’m working on seems to me the harder thing to do. So that if I’m writing fiction, I think, nonfiction is so much easier, you don’t have to make anything up. You can just describe what’s in the world. You can just say more or less explicitly what you think. Then if I’m actually trying to write an essay, I think, fiction is so great, you don’t actually have to make perfect sense. You can make things up. So whatever I’m not working on seems to be the easier thing and whatever I’m working on, the harder thing. The demands of organization are different, I think.

Park: Do you see yourself as a novelist first, and then an essayist and playwright?

Kunkel: I see myself first as a writer. You know I’m somebody who feels compelled to write, who’s always wanted to write. And that comes before knowing what I want to write. And in recent years I’ve been working quite a bit on the play and writing fiction, but writing a lot of stuff that’s not fiction too. … I would feel quite bad if I ceased to be any kind of writer, but I don’t think I would feel bad if I never wrote a novel again. And I don’t think I’d feel so bad if no one ever wrote a novel.

Park: Really?

Kunkel: Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But do we sit around feeling bad that nobody writes epic poetry anymore? And yet, it was really quite a form. And it achieved certain effects that nobody has ever been able to achieve since. Do we feel bad that nobody writes verse tragedies anymore? Not particularly. What’s important, it seems to me, is that people write what they need to write and that doesn’t need to flow through the same formal channels as in the past.

Park: Who do you see as the target readership for n+1?

Kunkel: Our ideal reader is more defining himself or herself than we’re defining him or her, I think. Probably just, you know, an educated generalist. I think we imagine our audience being relatively young, but as we become relatively older, we probably imagine our audience not, not remaining quite as young. (Laughs.)

Park: What publications do you read?

Kunkel: Down here I read Página/12 which is the left daily and Le Monde Diplomatique in its Southern Cone edition. You know, those are my sort of political staples here. And then, when it comes to English language stuff I read the LRB, I read the New York Review of Books. I read the New Left Review. I read Dissent.

Park: What about contemporaries?

Kunkel: I’ve read some of Gary [Shteyngart]’s stuff and admired it a lot. Joshua Ferris I’ve read and admired. I think Nicole Krauss in her recent book shows what a great ear she has. So I read all sorts of people but I try not to pay too much attention to my exact contemporaries, as it were, just because I don’t want to think of myself in comparison with them very much. … Somebody who belongs to a different generation like [Jonathan] Franzen or Denis Johnson I feel that I can read without making these comparisons too much.

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