Great novels about wasting time.

A brief history of wasting time.
May 13 2008 4:00 PM

Procrastination Lit

Great novels about wasting time.

Read more from Slate's  special issue  on procrastination.

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Fueled by anxiety, Gaddis' final, one-paragraph novel naturally needs some anxiety of influence, courtesy of Benjamin and also Thomas Bernhard. The narrator in Agape Agape channels Bernhard's stream-of-consciousness prose—the opening sentence is 239 words long—and feels such a psychic connection to passages of Concrete that he accuses the author of telepathic idea-theft:

It's my opening page, he's plagiarized my work right here in front of me before I've even written it! That's not the only one. That's not the only one either, he's done it before, or after, word for word right in this heap somewhere you could call it plagiary a kind of entropy in there corrupting the creation it's right in here somewhere I can never find anything in this mess never get it sorted out, never get it in any kind of order but that's what it's all about in the first place isn't it? Get things in order that's half the battle in fact it is the battle …

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At first glance, the rushed and desperate prose style native to procrastination lit seems to burst with urgent, do-or-die, carpe diem momentum. But the mode soon feels like a bargaining tactic, a stalling technique, a panicked bid for time to stave off the overwhelming angst generated by enormous—or crazed, or hopeless—ambition. (Next time you're playing Minesweeper instead of working, ask yourself if it's because your standards are too high.) The ticking of the clock is almost deafening in Agape Agape: The specter of illness and mortality hangs heavily over the book, which was completed at the end of Gaddis' life (and published in 2002, four years after his death from prostate cancer). Concrete, too, is chilly with intimations of death. Rudolf does not disagree with his sister when she says he lives in a "morgue," communing with his books not out of scholarly devotion but out of cowardice: "You associate only with the dead. … Because you're afraid of the living, she said."

Indeed, the most bracing revelation of procrastination lit is the terrible possibility that years of delay and deferral are tantamount to a refusal of life as it is or a self-willed limbo—even a living death. The narrator in Fanon appears to recognize this danger: He has, after all, spent 40 years mulling the life of a dead man, to little apparent avail. Accordingly, he scolds his hesitating double, Thomas, with words just pitiless enough to be inspiring to the procrastinator inside us all: "Why couldn't he write this novel. Or better yet, why couldn't he live it. Love it or leave it, Thomas."

Tomorrow: Jessica Winter on authors who procrastinate.