David Foster Wallace and the problem of being bored.

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April 12 2011 3:37 PM

Infinite Attention

David Foster Wallace and being bored out of your mind.

Also in Slate, Judith Shulevitz reviews The Pale King.

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This isn't just snobbery against small towns. The Pale King portrays sociability in general as a series of misfires, misunderstandings, botched conversations. Indeed, to the extent that characters in The Pale King experience any sort of quasi-Romantic inwardness, any reflective solitude, it's usually during a conversation, when it's the other person's turn to speak.

They do this not because they're vicious or selfish, but because they're anxious and self-conscious, and other people make them more anxious and more self-conscious. The tightening spiral of anxiety and self-consciousness is a kind of rebuke, or at least a cautionary counterexample, to the Romantic ideal of self-reflection. The anxious person confronts the possibility that he can heighten the anxiety just by thinking about it: What if she can see that I'm nervous? That'll make me more nervous and she'll see that somehow. Oh God I'm getting more nervous just thinking about being nervous. Help! Well, imagine a person whose anxiety manifests on the surface, immediately, in symptoms that both betray the inner weirdness and evoke (to be frank) justified disgust. There are many scenes of morbid self-reflection in The Pale King, but the signal ones involve a guy named Cusk who, when he so much as thinks about sweating, sweats in glistening sheets that melt down his face and neck and soak his clothes. So how does this guy not think about sweating? How does his inner-life not consist entirely of variations on the question "Am I sweating yet?" My point is that the ideal of self-reflection probably seems somewhat less redemptive to sweaty Cusk than it did to, say, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

If being bored spurs rumination, as people Romantically imagine, but rumination spurs morbid self-consumption, then we might have a pretty solid reason to recoil from boredom. But maybe self-reflection doesn't just go awry or get stuck, turn morbid fears into real objects. Maybe the scary thing is already there, in which case we have an even better reason to avoid quiet contemplation and boredom. In a hilariously recursive "Author's Forward" (which appears on page 66), the "author" writes: "Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain" because it fails "to distract people from some deeper type of pain that's always there." He goes on to mention "Walkmen, iPods, Blackberries, cell phones that attach to your head. …  I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows it's about something else, way down."

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But The Pale King takes boredom beyond the latently redemptive or secretly terrifying lack of stimulation. It imagines boredom as complete immersion in tedious experience. For the characters in The Pale King, boredom is something that comes at you, relentlessly, redundantly. It is inescapable. There is no layer of inspiration or freedom beyond or beneath it, which you might access through one of the Romantics' escape hatches. In one galvanizing chapter, a mysterious lecturer in a class on tax accounting declares that, where heroism and bravery once consisted in acts of discovery that generated new facts and meanings, today there are no new facts. Today, heroism consists in attending to existing facts, so as to order them better, and bravery consists in bearing up against this task's unbelievable tedium. Today's existential heroes, in other words, are CPAs. (It is one of this book's many profound jokes that a visiting lecturer of tax accounting is enlisted to restate the stoical hinge of Nietzsche's thought: the embrace of finite existence and the doctrine of Eternal Return.)

This lesson takes a more human form—sad, breathtakingly rigorous and searching, ultimately hysterically funny—in a long chapter near the end of the book. An IRS examiner named Meredith Rand falls by accident into discussion with a co-worker named Drinion but dubbed by his colleagues Mr. X,  where "X" stands, sarcastically, for "excitement." Meredith Rand is so beautiful she can't have decent conversations with anyone—men always trying to impress her through inane performances, women always resenting and distrusting her. Behind her back men describe her as "sexy but crazy and a serious bore." Mr. X, for his part, is patently unattractive and odd, overwhelmingly bland, but Meredith finds herself divulging detail after painful detail of her life to him.

As their conversation progresses, it grows clear that Mr. X has some Wallace-version of Asperger's syndrome. He's keyed almost solely to the task of processing language, and is thus immune to the woman's paralyzing beauty. He's never had sexual feelings, he says, for anyone. But Meredith Rand is unspooling long and largely coherent strings of words, and this alone holds him completely rapt. And the fact that this strange and sexless man is listening to her and understanding her, and that he carries not a flicker of suppressed attraction, or self-consciousness, or self-importance, or, really inner self of any kind, frees her to speak coherently. Normal guys bring to Meredith Rand an irksome drama of romantic compulsion, channeled through stratagems intended either to mask it or imbue it with a dignity it cannot have. They can't, in other words, get over themselves. (I think of the Gary Larson cartoon of a miniature man standing before a beautiful and much larger woman and telling himself: "Remember to act shy and vulnerable.")

But Mr. X has no inner drama to mask. He's not trying to fashion her a gift of his dignity. What Mr. X has to give the seriously boring Meredith Rand is his hearing ability, his uncompelled interest, his above-average comprehension of human speech, and the occasional innocent question for clearing up ambiguous meanings, because the only thing he wants is to understand what's before him. Mr. Excitement's gift to Meredith Rand is to let his own self dissolve across the spreading surface of her words. It helps that he doesn't have to try very hard. His self was pretty flat to begin with. 

In other words Mr. Excitement is exemplary because he pays attention. He gives the tedious world its due. He doesn't waft into dreamy contemplation when the ocean of facts leaves him understimulated. He listens, closely enough to find these facts exquisite, and then, for some reason relating to the pleasure he finds in boredom, or to the bravery and heroism he embodies in his transcendent blandness, he levitates.

Matt Feeney is a writer in Oakland. You can email him and follow him on Twitter.

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