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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Those of us who are vulnerable to the siren call of procrastination can find plenty of fictional compatriots on our bookshelves, though they may provide cold comfort. We could start with Hamlet, obviously, who wonders "whether it be/ Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple/ Of thinking too precisely on th' event" that causes his dithering. Or pity the aptly named Jimmy Tomorrow and the other ne'er-do-wells who populate The Iceman Cometh, nursing their pipe dreams like toxic cocktails. Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City gives us a cocaine-addled protagonist whose procrastination at work costs him his job and whose punishing nightlife regimen is revealed to be, at least in part, an elaborate deferral of grief for his dead mother. Most endearingly, Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys toils haplessly on an unfinishable novel—he procrastinates not about starting the book but finishing it or, rather, abandoning it.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

But there is also a small and unnerving category of literature that is not only about procrastination but that, in form and style, enacts the frenetic paralysis of irrational delay. The reader who procrastinates may discover the sharpest pleasures and horrors of recognition within the tangled, meandering sentences in these slender volumes—detour-clogged journeys that go around and around in crooked, tortured circles as they strenuously avoid their destinations.

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The cruel bard of procrastination lit is Thomas Bernhard, the late Austrian writer whose forte was case studies in failed mono- and megalomania. In The Lime Works (1970), a self-styled mad scientist drags his doomed wife with him into near-isolation so that he can compose the definitive book on the sense of hearing, though he never finds the right moment to begin. Likewise in The Loser (1983), the narrator works for years on an essay about genius Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, which is never finished or published. Concrete (1982), characteristically for a Bernhard story, consists of a single, ranting paragraph that spans 150 pages—the feverish output of a reclusive musicologist, Rudolf, who has been trying for 10 years to come up with the first line of a career-making monograph on Felix Mendelssohn.

In his exhaustive, exhausting endeavors to do anything but write the book he so frantically wants to write, Bernhard's Rudolf exhibits virtually every behavioral glitch of the chronic procrastinator. He's a pathological perfectionist (that elusive first sentence, he writes, has to be "the only possible one"). He shows hints of OCD (fretting that he has never landed on the right arrangement of books and papers on his desk). He's a virtuoso of the pathetic excuse (at one point he claims that the breaking dawn light has blocked him). And he's zealous about blaming his disastrous habits on others, in his case his sister—whether it's her absence, her presence, her imminent arrival, or her very existence: "It's as if her sole aim in life were to destroy my intellectual work." Rudolf's hilariously narcissistic diatribes against this "wretched, malignant, deceitful" woman are so frequent and passionate that her alleged interferences, and his hypergraphic fixation on them, seem to be a source of compulsive, masochistic pleasure—like blowing a deadline because you watched a marathon of The Hills.

Rudolf delays writing his opus by writing about delaying writing his opus; his nonfiction counterpart is Geoff Dyer in Out of Sheer Rage (1997), a would-be study of D.H. Lawrence that mutated into a memoir about trying and failing to write a study of D.H. Lawrence. (Dyer writes ruefully about a phenomenon that psychologist Maury Silver dubbed "maintaining the procrastinating field": "I even built up an impressive stack of notes with Lawrence vaguely in mind, but these notes, it is obvious to me now, actually served not to prepare for and facilitate the writing of a book about Lawrence but to defer and postpone doing so.") In his recently published novel, Fanon, John Edgar Wideman turns up the meta-palooza one more notch. Wideman's narrator, who is faltering in his effort to write a book about the psychiatrist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon, creates for himself a double, Thomas, who is also attempting a book about Fanon.

Concrete, Out of Sheer Rage, and Fanon are kindred works, built on unmet expectations: They are not what they were intended to be but, rather, the bitter fruits of displaced, often agonizing labors. They portray the procrastinating disease as fundamentally a dis-ease: a suffocating sense of irresolution about where it is the writer wants to be, both mentally and physically. Just as the narrators cannot stick too long with one train of thought before whirling off on a tangent (and then, inevitably, spiraling back to where they left off), they can never attain lasting satisfaction in their environments: Large, time-wasting swaths of Concrete are consumed with whether or not Rudolf will leave Peiskam for Palma, while Dyer flits restlessly from Rome to Greece to Oxford.

The narrator of William Gaddis' Agape Agape is going nowhere—he is trapped in bed after surgery—but his mind cannot find a moment's peace. As he races against an inexorable deadline ("No but you see I've got to explain all this because I don't, we don't know how much time there is left," the book begins), his thoughts scuttle in agitation from the book he hasn't written, about the sociocultural effects of the player piano in America; to the piles of notes for the book he hasn't written; to the piles of paperwork he has to sort out before he dies. Agape Agape, which makes a rambling lament against the mechanization of the arts, is the repository of a lifetime of note-taking on its subject—much like Walter Benjamin's unfinished, far vaster Arcades Project, an epic consideration of the 19th-century Parisian consumer experience that J.M. Coetzee once called "a history of procrastination and false starts, of wanderings in archival labyrinths in a quest for exhaustiveness all too typical of the collecting temperament."

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