Miscellaneous, Week 6

The unboreable lightness of being

06.23.11 | | Comment?

“The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unboreable…. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

– p. 438

What you’ve just finished is an unfinished novel. Says so right on the title page, though at least one astute reader has a problem with calling it even that. Essentially, you’ve just read 500-odd pages of middle.


But after reading through the “Notes and Asides,” I kept coming back to this one line: “Central Deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.”

So a Frankensteinian thought experiment: If this book had been finished, might it still, deliberately, have felt unfinished? Given an author who wrote one novel that ends in the middle of a sentence and another in which the end is, if anything, the beginning, and still leaves pretty elephantine blanks for readers to fill in. (Never mind how much The Pale King’s hypnotic final section feels like the way Infinite Jest calmly but ominously slipped away.) In other words, might The Pale King have as much of an “ending” — though surely not as much complexity, texture, dimension — as it was ever going to get?

After all, nothing actually happens.

Though we can pretty much guess, given Wallace’s appetite for dystopia and the fact that we’re talking about the trajectory of computing in the 1980s, how the story ends.

Still, if The Pale King ends up being only a series of set-ups for stuff happening, it’s an intricate and elegant set-up. I kept noticing how many of the wheels Wallace set in motion locked snugly into gear, from the footnote in Section 24 that casually identifies the monologuist of Section 22 as “Irrelevant” Chris Fogle to the way we find out in the final notes what makes Drinion the way he is.

Sometimes I sit around and imagine, especially when I’m stuck on a bus for 2 ½ hours or something like that, that however The Pale King might ultimately have ended, it still would have ended up being about being in the middle. About being able to pay attention to the fullness of the world right now in front of you, instead of sort of jiggling your leg and looking ahead to the end. I still do think this book was to some extent meant to be, for readers and maybe its author as well, an antidote to the relentless jones for entertainment that drives Infinite Jest. I’m thinking of the levitating Drinion, with his unboreable lightness of being _ his ability to look past externalities and pay true attention, to be happy. To overpower boredom to get to the “second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.”

Me, though, I’m still on the bus. Bored. Watching cars roll rotely down a highway through somewhere not worth noticing. I start thinking about The Pale King. About the middle, since there’s no real end. Sort of mentally stare at it like a magic eye poster, waiting for the picture within the picture to present itself.

And while I’m waiting, I notice that the guy in the Lexus is passing people on the right like a guy who either doesn’t realize he’s a stereotype or doesn’t care, and about 50 percent of the people are texting while driving, and I’m willing to bet that at least some of them are texting about driving…

And the picture that presents itself is that scene in American Beauty of the plastic bag blowing in the breeze. You remember: the intense stoner-aesthete kid videotaped this bag, he’s showing it to the hot-and-susceptible girl next door. He says, “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world.” And you said stuff like this in high school, too, when you were trying to get over, but the thing is, he’s right.

And so is Wallace, I’d like to think, in the very last words of  The Pale King’s notes: “It’s the ability to be immersed.”

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