"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
For some time now I have been anxious to let loose on the sorry state of the young male population of this country — or at least of New York City. But I’ve held myself back, realizing that the complaints of a woman who has not yet met a mate do not exactly qualify as breaking news.
Still, I’m haunted by the suspicion that my tale is different from those told by Edith Wharton and Candace Bushnell. The men I meet are not the rakish, workaholic, cheating cads of yore. No, I’m bearing witness to a bona fide crisis in American masculinity, one that seems especially, but not exclusively, to afflict the young, urban and privileged. And with it, I have observed the birth of a new breed of man: a man of few interests and no passions; a man whose libido is reduced and whose sense of responsibility nonexistent. These men are commitment-phobic not just about love, but about life. They drink and take drugs, but even their hedonism lacks focus or joy. They exhibit no energy for anyone, any activity, profession or ideology. While they may have mildly defined areas of interest — in, say, “Star Wars,” or the work of Ron Jeremy — they have trouble figuring out what kind of food they might want to eat on a given night. And, in an effort to cure what ails them, they have been medicated to the gills with potions designed to dull their feelings even further.
Alas, there hasn’t been an especially timely occasion to shine a floodlight on these men, and I have been delayed, perhaps, by my understanding that doing so would make me sound like an emasculating harpy. Well, Benjamin Kunkel — the 32-year-old, freshly anointed darling of the New York literary set and author of the new novel “Indecision” — has saved my ass and broken the story for me.
“Indecision” doesn’t address the phenomenon of the new male torpor directly. But in its hero, Dwight Wilmerding — a 28-year-old New Yorker with several roommates, no job or opinions, a listless romantic relationship, and an ill-gotten prescription for Abulinix, a remedy for chronic indecisiveness — Kunkel has crafted an emblem of the vigor-impaired idlers currently clogging the dating pool.
Happily enough, “Indecision” is the tale of Dwight’s lurching emergence from his apathetic chrysalis. A recently “pfired” Pfizer employee, Dwight begins the book emotionally paralyzed by everything in his life: his tepid feelings for his girlfriend, his incestuous impulses toward his sister. He cannot process the impact of damaging events such as his parents’ divorce or his hallucinogenic experience of Sept. 11. His only conviction is that he can find true love with a former crush he hasn’t seen in a decade. Dwight’s pursuit of this fantasy, along with the pills he believes will cure his little impassivity problem, lead him accidentally to start making actual choices, like traveling to Ecuador, and to experience authentic feelings: for the woman he meets there and the political situation he encounters.
After I finished Kunkel’s novel, I was curious about the man who had so precisely drawn a figure whose initial indifference is so painfully familiar. With Kunkel, I thought I might be able to have a safe, objective conversation about the kind of guy Dwight is as his story begins. How did we get a population of Dwights? Will they ever get better? Why do my friends and I continue to date them?
Kunkel and his fellow co-founders of literary journal n+1 have recently been identified as members of a new generation of “public intellectuals.” So imagine my surprise when he not only consented to my frivolous request to discuss gender relations, but suggested we have our talk over Friday dinner. “Dinner dates are what all those indecisive men go on, right?” he wrote me by e-mail. For the record, Kunkel’s date planning was decisive: He wanted Indian and presented me with a list of restaurants in descending order of preference and costs. (Since this was, in fact, a fake date, Salon was paying.)
Kunkel, dressed in a dark suit-jacket and white shirt, has a small frame and a handsome face — covered with downy blond beard and mustache. When I arrived at the restaurant, he was drinking single-malt Laphroaig Scotch.
He also wasn’t shy about expressing his preferences: He eats only fish and vegetables, and in a previous visit to the restaurant had found the saag paneer too spicy. Over a crispy tangy bitter melon salad and halibut, we quickly covered his background. He grew up in Eagle, Colo. (famous now as the resort town in which Kobe Bryant was charged with rape), before attending St. Paul’s prep school in New Hampshire, followed by Deep Springs College in California and then Harvard. After a stint in France, he moved to New York. When we met, Kunkel had recently returned from Colorado, and expressed all the ambivalence about New York City that any good New Yorker should.
But we soon settled into the task at hand: picking over “the scourge of indecisive men,” as I had delicately put it in my e-mail. Kunkel insisted he himself was not of their number, and declined to reveal whether he was currently dating anyone.
I should start by asking: How much of you is in Dwight?
Not too much. My psychological approach to the book, if I could define it, was to break apart my personality and distribute it among the various characters. One of the things that appealed to me about Dwight’s character was his ample endowment of something that I don’t have nearly as much of, which is a cheerful good nature. He’s willing and ready to believe all sorts of things in a way that I haven’t been and am not.
He’s available to experience in a way that is admirable; it may be one of the few admirable things about him. Of course his availability to experience ends up being shallower than he’d like to admit; this is something [Dwight's love interest] Brigid points out to him mercilessly at one point. In some sense he’s available to experience because he doesn’t let any of the experiences penetrate too deeply … But I’ve had a much clearer idea of what I’ve wanted to do with my life than he had.
My sense of the sort of relationship he’s got himself in at the beginning of the book — this twilight relationship that has never quite begun and is constantly ending — is not entirely theoretical.
What about that kind of noncommittal, ambivalent relationship? Is it the type of youthful union you find often in New York?
Probably more in New York than elsewhere. All sorts of people I know in New York have noted that when they go home, their friends from high school tend to be married. I think people in New York postpone mating longer than anywhere else.
For one thing, they can. If you lived in Cleveland you might feel really immature, as your 20s waned and your 30s began, to still be a single person going out on dates. But in New York it feels perfectly normal and legitimate to be doing those things.
There is also an idea that is not really expressed in the book, but is in an upcoming issue of n+1. The idea is that dating should lead toward mating, and spread out before us is this array of choices that should lead toward a choice you can feel secure in. But I think the opposite happens. You become familiar with disposable relationships. So though they seem to be conducting you toward permanence and mating, in fact they’re just inculcating a habit of serial monogamy.
Can you break down the behaviors that you’ve just described along gender lines?
Sure. Though to tell you the truth, I don’t have too much experience with this. My life as a serial monogamist has involved a few long-term relationships so I haven’t accumulated the data that some young male daters have.
But you have friends.
I have friends.
As far as I can tell, it will take some ingenuity for a man to retain his freedom past a certain age. And even if the man is not disposed toward doing that, then this becomes a structural feature of the relationship. Almost as if because a woman is wearing one jersey and a man is wearing the jersey of the different team, they are expected to relate to each other in these ways.
I have a sense that particularly in New York — though I’m sure it exists this way in Boston and in San Francisco — there is a super-abundance of attractive, intelligent young women whom a man is very unlikely to be worthy of, who nevertheless set a higher value on him than he sets on them. This makes any sort of decision very difficult. Because to constantly be exposed to people whom you are unworthy of to begin with, yet who want you more than you want them, is confusing.
That assumption, that generally young men are unworthy of their female counterparts, is certainly in your book. I would get hanged for saying it, but there’s an uncomfortable truth there.
Yes. As far as I can tell.
So you’re a guy. Tell me what makes these men unworthy?
Men are unworthy in the sense of being more unfinished as people [and] in the sense of being, as romantic partners, bumbling and dishonest in a way that women are maybe not as often. The ideal of a couple that we subscribe to is one that I think is likelier to satisfy women on the whole more than it is men … So rather than men claiming that for a deal to be made they are going to insist upon certain rights or options that would sound sleazy — mainly some mild sort of institutionalized promiscuity — rather than insisting on such terms as a fundamental aspect of whatever contract is being worked out, the man basically [winds up] feel[ing] as if his desires aren’t quite the right ones.
So if women have a slightly harder time than they would like finding men that would like to sign up for mating it’s in part because men are presumed — correctly most of the time — to have these desires that they’re not willing to actually make a stand on, but which they’ll have to deal with at some point.
Do you think that these dynamics are particular to our generation?
I think they’ve been intensified by certain conditions of our generation. The fact that both women and men can, and are expected, to support themselves changes the situation. But so does the fact that while well-educated people can support themselves, they can’t support themselves in very high style, particularly when it comes to their residence. You’re going to have to have a roommate. And it’s going to be a roommate of your sex, which you’re not going to enjoy terribly, or it’s going to be a roommate of the opposite sex, somebody who you’re sexually scouting out as a spouse. Most people would rather have a roommate, if they’re heterosexual, of the opposite sex. So I think economic independence has tended to prolong the period of decision making, but the near impossibility of living in any kind of style as a single person has tended to make that decision seem all the more pressing.
One of reasons I liked “Indecision” was also one of the reasons it made me crazy: that it so precisely portrayed not just the indecisiveness but the lack of energy in men of my generation — men whom I’ve known and dated. They haven’t had things they loved, or even things they really cared about …
[Interrupting] Women shouldn’t have sex with these guys! As a whole, you should go on some sort of a sexual strike against just such men.
Well, I sort of have.
No. It’s like with the labor movement: an individual worker striking won’t do it. There needs to be a general strike. If there is not a mass strike against such men they will be able to achieve libidinal expenditure relatively frequently, if not satisfyingly; they’ll fail to sublimate their libidinal energies in the way that actually makes men attractive, which is by accomplishing things that may not be what they’ve always wanted to accomplish but are worthy things all the same, and they’ll respond to women with the slack apathy with which one might respond to women if one felt that women were too available to them. Women as a whole should go on sexual strike; this is what I’m proposing.
Why is it up to us? A girl likes to get laid, too, after all. Why should it be our responsibility to go on a sex strike just to energize the male population?
You need to make an old-fashioned masculine distinction between sex and love. Just find some guy and use him. The guys you want love from? Give them nothing.
So is that the only solution? Or is there another way this dynamic can change?
I don’t really know. I’m dealing with this from a highly theoretical standpoint. Of course, there is a broader sense of male apathy that I’m sure has causes that aren’t just romantico-sexual in nature. It has to do with the difficulty of finding something that seems meaningful to do in the world.
Why would the difficulty of finding meaning afflict men more than women?
I suppose because the fact that nearly the whole universe of jobs is open to women is a tremendous gain in possibility for them. For men, there’s been no corresponding gain. In fact, we live in this world that for reasons that are kind of hard to explain, [though] I think Hannah Arendt has gone some distance in explaining them, it seems that meaningful action is harder to take than it has been in previous historical times. I think this is the sense even of people who have no historical sense. It’s something that they feel.
Are you saying that the role that men have historically been expected to play has been muddied by the fact that women are now able and often expected to play the same role?
I don’t think this has anything to do with women.
No. I think it’s something that men sense more acutely than women because men have been actors in the world, as a whole, for more generations than women have been. I think there’s got to be a reason that the slacker — the person who feels that nothing he could do could really be all that meaningful, so why really do anything — is a more common male figure than a female figure. It must be because the person expected to act meaningfully in the public world, man or woman, has been a man forever. And men then are in a better position to sense some sort of decline in the ability to feel that you can do something meaningful in your life.
So men are responding to broader political issues?
And why is there this decline in the ability to act meaningfully?
Well, the answers that people like Arendt have given have to do with bureaucratization. You could also adduce the narrowness of political hopes in our time. [Historically], someone with a relatively meaningless job might have nevertheless felt he belonged to a very meaningful group, whether he was a fascist or a socialist. I feel out of my depth talking about this stuff. It is very important but hard to wrap your head around. I think men inherit — if from nowhere else than from the movies — the impression that in order to win the respect and love of a woman, you ought to be doing something meaningful in the world. And if you can’t hold your head up high in that sense, then why ask somebody to love you?
Well, maybe the question I’m about to ask comes from the movies too, but forget about “asking a woman to love you.” What happened to actively, and ardently, loving a woman?
Partly, a model of shopping has overtaken our experience of romance. Love, historically, has been associated with a sensation of destiny. It’s very difficult for us to attain a sensation of destiny where love is concerned anymore, because we think we can always look for something better, which is essentially a shopper’s mentality. There’s no destiny when it comes to buying pants or shirts or a dress. There’ll be the nicest thing you can afford this season. But then a new season will [bring] more attractive styles and you’ll actually be able to afford something better. I think that tremendous passion that we feel other generations had and that we missed was attached to a sense of destiny, and of permanent love that would survive changes in station and opportunity and fortune.
That’s a very unromantic thing you just said. Not just because it’s about the shopping model for love, which is certainly a societal model to which women are just as susceptible. But because what you’re saying is that the model overpowers any genuine passion or raw desire.
Raw desire is soon formed and soon spent. It is not what sonnets or the romantic comedies of the ’30s want me to desire. They want us to desire that our souls should be paired with someone else’s. And I think the phases of people’s lives feel too disposable for that to be something easily settled upon now.
Coming back to fiction, I would say the only persuasive love story I’ve encountered in fiction, [especially] fiction written by a man over the last 20 years, is in Norman Rush’s “Mating,” where a man has set up a utopian feminist commune in the desert of Botswana. It allows the woman to take him seriously as a man. He’s a man who on the one hand is fully aware of the legitimate claims of feminism, but at the same time is being a great man in this old-fashioned way by founding a society.
But that has everything to do with feminism and women’s roles in this discussion we’re having. For a long time, I’ve been wondering about a crisis of masculinity in our generation, a generation in which opportunities were truly available to at least middle-class women. We weren’t just told we could do anything; we were expected to do everything. But we were always told how difficult that would be, that we would confront challenges and pay high prices for our satisfactions. I don’t know that men of our generation were sent the same message. So when things get tough, women don’t enjoy it any more than men, but they are not surprised. Whereas men — at least some of the ones I’ve known — have been paralyzed by life’s hardships.
If what you’re talking about is the inculcation in women of a tragic sense of life — the sense that nothing comes without a price — that is the sine qua non of masculinity, the masculine tragic attitude that we see in books and movies. “This is gonna hurt, but it’s necessary; it ain’t gonna be easy, but you’re gonna have to suck it up and take it.” But what you’re saying is very interesting. If the tragic sense of life, this masculine property, should have been transferred to women, [and] men have come to be seen as these cosseted creatures denied any sort of full contact with reality, then this is a really important historical crossover.
Well, let’s not get carried away. I’m guessing here.
Run with it. What you’ve just described as an attitude is something that is historically associated with men rather than women. When we encounter it in men we tend to consider it masculine. And something that is probably universally lacking in men we find twee and weak and indecisive is this tragic sense.
I noticed it when friends lost jobs during the most recent economic bust. I saw a lot of men who sat on their couches and felt impotent and embarrassed about being jobless, but who made no move to do anything about it. It’s not that there weren’t women who reacted that way too, but most of my female friends went out and got some kind of job. Of course, many men did too. But I knew a lot of them who were just paralyzed.
To really aggrandize these generalizations we’ve been making, you could claim that a great historical crossover has occurred, that a sense of tragic, dignified realism has become the [mark] of femininity while men have become head-in-the-clouds dreamers who want things to be ideal if they’re to be at all. I think of that novel by Henry Green, I can’t remember if it’s “Living” or “Loving,” [in which] this sheltered industrialist’s daughter witnesses an industrial accident where a workingman dies. And she cries for two days straight. No one else in the novel does this because only an upper-class sheltered woman would cry for two days about someone dying in an industrial accident. It’s a very sad thing, but no one’s so sheltered that they could react that way! If men respond to a post-industrial accident like losing their job in the same sort of way — that they just can’t believe that the world has disappointed them — that’s interesting. But you’d also want to praise one aspect of it: If men, by being unrealistic, dreamy or weak, are preserving a sense of how life should actually be lived, then good for them.
Well, let’s not overdo it. I don’t think this historical crossover is a done deal. What we’re talking about is very much in process; these shifts may just be working themselves out. For all our generalizations, I’m speaking very specifically, about my peers who live in New York City and at 30 are almost all single. It’s possible that I just have really unmarriageable friends.
But probably not.
No, probably not, in that they are hot and successful: desirable by commonly held human standards. But I don’t think my stoic female friends don’t acknowledge injustice or pain. They just process it in a traditionally female mode — by talking about it. It’s like they transform that chatter into a fuel that men don’t have.
So old-fashioned men are silent stoics. Newfangled women are chattering stoics.
And newfangled men are not stoics at all.
This story has been corrected since it was originally published.
Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.More Rebecca Traister.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)