Boredom for Moderns

Posted on March 20, 2008


By Susan Tomaselli

“There is only one resource left to avoid the horrors of daily life. Never raise your eyes…Look down at the pavement at all times. When you do that, you see the reflections of the electric signs which assume all manner of shapes…and you can imagine yourself right back in the Middle Ages.”
– JK Huysmans, The Damned

“..the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—”
– Donald Barthelme, ‘The School’

“Fragments,” Barthelme said, “are the only forms I trust.” Fragments are how Lee Rourke describes his short stories, and the form serves him well. The twenty-eight stories in Everyday take the reader on a trip through the seamier side of London and, as Andrew Gallix writes in his introduction to the collection, treat us to a (un-) healthy dose of “pigeons, pints of bitterness, work, Islington, gratuitous violence, boredom, Hackney twits, psychogeography, pigeons, Hoxton twats, anonymous crushes on public transport, class war, urban alienation, media whores, pigeons, happy slapping, sexual frustration, City yuppies, the threat of terrorism, immigrants from Eastern Europe, boredom, work, binge drinking, pigeons, pigeons and more pigeons.” In other words, modern city life.

The characters we meet (Keith Price, Martin Hack, John Barleycorn, Sheila Hole, Lee Rourke) are ravaged by a savage boredom. Resentful, complacent, paralysed, hopeless against the empty prattle of everyday life, these Everymen lack a willingness to engage, change, leave and start again. Like Bartleby, Melville‘s patron saint of dispirited drones in an absurd workplace performing tedious tasks that they “would prefer not to”, they are resigned to their own bittersweet defeats:

“Do not misconstrue me, like I said, you’ve seen me countless times before. I don’t wear black, I don’t want to kill myself or listen to bands like Joy Division. I work and drink, I look like everyone else you see. I consume and watch TV, read the newspapers, books, eat and sleep. One day I shall be gone and no one will remember me, and no one will care, because that’s the way it should be and that’s the way it’s always been and will be. You see? I’m ordinary, my wings are clipped, and anyway, I have work in the morning. I have things to do. Stories such as these are meaningless.” [‘Mon Amie’, p. 109]

That somnolent state, to shrug off the responsibility to participate, is rejecting life itself. In actively rejecting everything, is it Nothing that is sought. “Nothing is more real than nothing,” Beckett offered; everything is meaningless.

“One dark inclement day Joe Blow was sitting at his desk, minding his own business, he was extremely bored – so bored in fact he actually felt like walking out of the library there and then for good. He didn’t of course, he just remained where he was supposed to, staring into his flat screen monitor, pretending to do some work.” [‘Joe Blow’, p. 175]

Of course, there are those who try to fight the boredom, to chuck it all in – Karl Dobson abandons the office to cycle the streets of Soho looking for a girl he met after an accident (‘Searching for Amy’); Irvine Doyle composes a letter of resignation after watching a couple fuck opposite his window (‘The Roof’) – but these are impotent rebellions; there’s more John Barleycorn’s in these stories than not:

“I’m John Barleycorn, a worker by trade, and I sit week in, week out in an office breathing regurgitated, chilled air. Accounts Department – that sort of everyday thing. I’m not not what you could describe as “going places”. I pay my bills each month, dream about winning the lottery yet never buy a ticket, watch crap reality TV shows and wish my life was better.” [‘John Barleycorn’, p. 111]

Early on, Andrew Gallix asks of Everyday: “What can you expect? Well, it all depends whether you squint or not, of course. If you do: 1) David Brent dry-humping Franz Kafka over the zerox machine, 2) an episode of Nathan Barley penned by Herman Melville and shot by Mike Leigh, 3) The Rakes fronted by Julian Maclaren-Ross with Patrick Hamilton on bass, Ann Quin on drums and Maurice Blanchot on kazoo.”

A fair assessment of the style and leitmotiv, but add to that rambunctious lot Anton Chekhov, in particular his ‘A Boring Story (From an Old Man’s Notebook)’. [An aside: Chekhov contributed 300 stories to the Petersburg weekly, Fragments.] As with anything which declares itself to be something and seldom is, Chekhov’s story, like Rourke’s ‘Being Lee Rourke is Boring,’ is anything but. In a letter Chekhov said of his boring story: “The most boring part of it, as you will see, consists of all sorts of arguments which, unfortunately, cannot be cut out, because my hero cannot do without them…They characterize the hero, his moods and his continuous shifting and shuffling.”

That sense of Chekhovian boredom (where a conversation “is becoming a bore;” dinner “rouses in me nothing but boredom and irritation;” “you could die of boredom;” “sheer boredom;” “his life is dull, nothing interests him;” “life is a snare and a delusion;”), the “continuous shifting and shuffling” through everyday life, and an indifference (“philosophers and sages are said to be indifferent. It isn’t true. Indifference is paralysis of the soul, premature death”) permeates these fragments of Rourke’s. Admittedly it is hardly original, yet this writer, by looking at the pavement and writing from the point-of-view of the pigeons, has crafted miniature masterpieces, made all the more captivating for his enduring fascination with repetition.

Buy this book>>

Everyday by Lee Rourke
Social Disease
272 Pages


Susan Tomaselli is the editor of Dogmatika and a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine. She lives in Dublin.

Posted in: Reading