That Forever Empty

While reading The Pale King, Wallace’s musings on boredom really struck a chord with me:

“Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly…but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places any more but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airport gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkman, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. 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.”

Not only did I know exactly what he was talking about on a personal level, but I had also seen Louis C.K. recently express his frustrations about the “information society”and cell phones in a interview on Conan (which I watched, coincidentally, on my cell phone). He essentially discusses the same empty void or, as he puts it, “that forever empty” that society fills with screens and phones. (The real meat of his argument starts in around 0:50)

Wallace identifies the pain and gets really close, but isn’t necessarily able to pinpoint it. C.K. argues that the pain is really just the state of being human, and that when we’re bored and try to cover it up with a technological distraction, we prevent ourselves from really feeling the full range of human emotion. We end up being “kind of satisfied with [our] product”.

So the question is, how does something like the “boring fiction” in The Pale King work against that? Wallace’s serious discussions on self-awareness (whether or not brought on by Obetrol) are devoid of screens and brought on by sitting alone by oneself, which is exactly what C.K. mentioned. The boredom Chris Fogle experiences makes him reflect on himself, his actions, and the actions of others. Taylor mentioned in class how she had to step away from a particularly lengthy paragraph on the IRS–when we step away from those dense paragraphs, what does it do to us as the reader? And what happens if we choose instead to press on? If being bored is what makes us human, does reading this book make you a better person? Or at least more in touch with your humanity?

3 thoughts on “That Forever Empty

  1. I think this is part of the experience of reading The Pale King; it’s almost as though Wallace challenging us to maintain attention through his destabilizing litany of footnotes, parentheticals, and asides. By foregrounding the relationship between the author and reader, and attempting to subvert it–or collapse it?–maybe Wallace creates something resembling an Obetrol-trip, where we’re aware of the various levels on which the book exists (conceptual, physical, self-referential), and the different layers of our interaction with it.

  2. I think that Wallace is performing a thought experience for himself in this regard, too, rather than solely attempting to endorse some sort of awareness or change in his readers. The narrator describes the scene in 24 where he walks into the “Immersives Room,” as being “traumatic,” and he writes, “I had felt ashamed about how easily I got bored when trying to concentrate.” This in combination with all of the novel’s self-deprecating asides and snide remarks about the Humanities makes me think that he might be in some way referring to his own writing process. Maybe I’m projecting, but it seems like writing something boring would be just as if not more taxing (ha) and frustrating than the act of reading it. The looming awareness of publishers and legal matters would bring about the same timed “test anxiety” he mentions in the 47th footnote as well. So I guess in response to your question– “does reading this book make you a better person?”– I feel it might be more personal than that, or at least more complex.

  3. I found myself reading Chapter 23 on the way from 22 to 24, and these three pages seem to reflect a response to the boring process of writing the “boring” Chapter 24 in addition to touching upon the pain of boredom itself. Through dreams about his childhood, the speaker connects boredom to having the time to meditate and reflect on one’s anxieties in a way that is reminiscent of the points brought up by Louis C.K. The Chapter is relatively free form and earnest, openly acknowledging “The placid hopelessness of adulthood”(255) in contrast to the other chapters that we have read (where we are explicitly challenged to wade through dense text and opaque narrators).

    With regards to the writing process, Chapter 23’s prose is downright poetic in comparison to 24, and I can’t help but feel that it represents the sort of “stepping away” that we’ve mentioned, that a writer needs to write something like Chapter 23 just to get himself through 24. In contrast to the precision necessarily involved in keeping footnotes upon footnotes straight in Chapter 24, this section seems to have an easier, more natural delivery.

    Or maybe having to wade through Chapter 24 has so distorted my worldview that everything else just reads easier. Even if the writing process is not at issue here, Chapter 23 does seem to give the reader a break, or at least prepare him for Chapter 24. Allow him to to recharge before diving into the labyrinth of footnotes to come. Reward him for sticking through it. We might contrast this with Chapter 25, which is deliberately unreadable: it is four pages long but presented as two columns to a page, and almost every sentence is of the form “[Person’s full name] turns a page.”

    It would be interesting to see how the rest of the book works with this experience of boredom, or conversely how this experience of boredom works within the larger context of the book.

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