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The Politics of Boredom and the Boredom of Politics in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 44, Numbers 4, Winter 2012
pp. 428-446 | 10.1353/sdn.2012.0039

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As the reviews poured in for David Foster Wallace's posthumous and unfinished The Pale King, it became evident that most reviewers took an almost perverse glee in declaring the book was "about" boredom. Michiko Kakutani's review of the novel for the New York Times, for instance, claims, "[n]ot surprisingly, a novel about boredom is, more than occasionally, boring" and wonders if Wallace, at times, "wanted to test the reader's tolerance for tedium." In a long piece for the London Review of Books praising Wallace and his work, even Jenny Turner admits, "much of The Pale King I found completely deadly." Perhaps Sam Anderson, writing for the New York Times Magazine, puts it most succinctly: "Wallace seems to have posed, to himself and to his readership, a sadomasochistic challenge: a novel devoted to the world's least-appealing-possible subject." These responses are fairly representative of many of the major reviews of The Pale King that were quite positive in their assessment of the novel but continued to wonder in what ways, to borrow the words of the purported narrator David Wallace, the novel says "something about dullness, information, and irrelevant complexity. About negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes" (85)?

A host of questions follows from this statement, such as: what does it actually mean to write about boredom? What does Wallace mean by "boredom"? How does Wallace's take on boredom fit into a larger literary and cultural context? In what ways does boredom function within the work-in-progress that is The Pale King, and how does it resonate in Wallace's oeuvre as a whole? It might be fair to admit from the outset that there are myriad ways to understand boredom and that Wallace's work, and The Pale King in particular, puts several of these into play. Ultimately, Wallace's treatment of boredom resonates with some of his earlier themes concerning depression and anxiety, which are most fully developed in Infinite Jest, and both extends and challenges them in what was, is, and must remain uncharted territory. Wallace is primarily interested in exploring the roots of "boredom" as a specific historical formation of late capitalist American life. What Wallace does in The Pale King is conduct a thorough analysis of how boredom has functioned, and continues to function, socially, culturally, and politically in the age of neoliberal capitalism, which dawned in the mid-1970s and is currently in crisis. In doing so, Wallace engages in a kind of "aesthetics of boredom," which examines boredom in both the novel's form and content, and offers a possible solution to the apparent malaise of post-industrial life.

The Construction of Boredom

It may seem like a simple task to define boredom, but it is actually a rather complicated one. Studies of boredom itself, for instance, are a rather recent phenomenon in literary studies. Earlier understandings of what we today might call boredom arose out of analyses of "ennui," "melancholy," or a similarly distinguished sounding concept. The most recent theorizations of boredom, however, are unique in their attention to the history of boredom, as well as the rhetoric or discourse of boredom itself. That boredom is given numerous forms and representations in The Pale King only reinforces the difficulty of defining boredom once and for all, but it does imply the distinction of a typology of postmodern boredoms.

Still, a history of boredom exists. A radically condensed version would mention that there is a notion of boredom in Greek thought, but that its true roots can be found in the experiences of the first Christian hermits, the Desert Fathers, who lived alone in caves and prayed rigorously all day. Perhaps due to their extreme isolation, they would sometimes experience a despair that they referred to as acedia, "the noontide demon," which prevented them from fulfilling their spiritual duties. By the Renaissance, acedia had given way to the secular concept of "melancholy" and the theory of the Four Humors, according to which the melancholic suffers from an excess of "black bile." In the eighteenth century, the rise of Romanticism gave birth to the modern concepts of "spleen" and...

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