In Praise Of Bildungsroman

by | Aug 28, 2005

Jay McInerney likes to read first novels. While reviewing Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision in today’s Sunday Times, he reveals:

I devour first novels, particularly coming-of-age novels. In its modern form the American bildungsroman (the novel of formation) descends from ”The Catcher in the Rye” (1951). Reinvigorated by feminism in the 70’s, urbanized and coked-up in the 80’s, it was grunged-down and nonfictionalized in the memoir-mad 90’s (not necessarily a terrible development since most first novels are quasi memoirs anyway.)


Though often disappointed and frequently bored senseless by the antics of Holden’s progeny, I still believe there’s a type of cultural news that can be delivered only by those who’ve recently crossed over from the riotous country of adolescence, as well as a new spin on the literary traditions that have long since become reified in the minds of older writers. There are certain zeitgeist frequencies to which young ears are more attuned.

I suppose this is to be expected from the writer of Bright Lights Big City, arguably my generation’s Catcher In The Rye. At any rate, he makes Indecision sound like a book to read.

Indecision seems at times to have been constructed from a kit in which all the ingredients of the modern American bildungsroman have been laid out methodically and chosen after deep deliberation. (Dead-end job? Check. Wanderjahr? Check. Walking eccentrically down street in a bathrobe? Check.)

By the way, the novel draws its name from the main character’s abulia—an inability to make decisions.