Greatest depictions of American boredom?
April 29, 2010 2:35 PM   Subscribe

Most compelling literary depictions of twentieth-century American boredom?

I'm working on a Eng. Lit. paper about boredom, specifically American post-war ennui. I have a few ideas for primary sources, and lots of critical secondary sources, but feeling a bit uncertain as to how well they work. Essentially the argument (still coming together) goes that several factors -- i.e., a post-war economic boom, new technologies, Cold War anxiety -- conspired to create a new atmosphere of boredom and restlessness in the US.
Any great suggestions for depictions (preferably novels, though stories, poems, films, other narrative forms) of a uniquely mid-century American form of boredom?
posted by southvie to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, MASH
posted by parmanparman at 2:40 PM on April 29, 2010

"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939, however)
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:43 PM on April 29, 2010

I know it's not fiction, but could The Feminine Mystique work in your favor?
posted by Blau at 2:45 PM on April 29, 2010

The novel White Noise is pretty much all about the ennui of being middle class, professional, and successful. From novelist:

White Noise tells the story of the Gladney family as they come to terms with their own fears and desires, with the strangeness of contemporary American culture, and with the omnipresence of death and catastrophe.

But that doesn't quite do it justice. As with the other novel of his that I've read, Underworld, Delillo is really obsessed with how Americans relate to the things around them. A few highlights from the novel:

- An unnamed "airborne toxic event" that's constantly referred to on the news and in passing, but never really seen as a danger or threat (pretty good analogy for the cold war, as I read it)

- An orgiastic shopping trip that has the narrator going into esctacies over rope, and how cheap it is, and what great quality it is.

-The most photographed barn in America, which is famous for nothing other than being famous, and draws people from miles around to photograph it.

The entire novel is about a family that's satisfied, but not really happy.

Another good option may be The Mezzanine, by Nicholas Baker. This book covers, literally, the 5 minute trip that an office worker takes from outside of his building to his door. However the man covers such minute details as why he likes cookies and milk, the triumph of figuring out how to put on deodorant without taking off a shirt, and his favorite tie knot.

Both of these are classics of post-modern literature (in fact I wouldn't be surprised if you're already considering them), and I'm not sure if you're looking for something a little more obscure, but both have been heavily written on, and should provide a lot of source material for your topic.
posted by codacorolla at 2:48 PM on April 29, 2010 [9 favorites]

Babbitt. Yeah, it's from 1922, but it's still spot on.
posted by scruss at 2:50 PM on April 29, 2010

Both books that codacolorolla mentions are awesome and would fit your theme.
posted by meadowlark lime at 2:50 PM on April 29, 2010

Anything by Fitzgerald would work for a comparison to the first instance of twentieth-century post-war ennui.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 2:51 PM on April 29, 2010

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:52 PM on April 29, 2010

Rabbit, Run
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:54 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You could also probably work Into the Wild in, a non-fiction work by Jon Krakauer. It's about a kid who comes from an affluent upper-middle class family in the Virginia suburbs, and forsakes all of the potential that this entails because he finds suburban life too constricting. Ultimately he undertakes a series of adventures in the American West and Alaska, eventually dying in the process.

This is a real life reaction to the boredom of middle-class suburban existence. I'm not sure if it being non-fiction would preclude it from consideration. They also made a pretty good film about it, that diverges from the book enough to be considered its own story.
posted by codacorolla at 2:55 PM on April 29, 2010

Fight Club.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:01 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whoops, somehow missed the post-war aspect (though the boredom in the book is largely fall-out of the generation following on the heels of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam).
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:03 PM on April 29, 2010

Revolutionary Road (the excellent book, not the execrable movie) is one of the classics of midcentury American suburban ennui.
posted by Nothing... and like it at 3:03 PM on April 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

The first part of The Women's Room charts this quite nicely, particularly the effect of technology (washing machines, vacuum cleaners and the like) and how this freed suburban women up to be, well, bored. (It's been a while since I read it so my recollection is a little hazy.)
posted by prettypretty at 3:03 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Infinite Jest.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:06 PM on April 29, 2010

Restlessness more than boredom, but Steinbeck's Travels with Charley (non-fic) may fit. He talks about urbanization, cold-war anxiety, and the general restlessness of the American people and the desire to move/travel. It's a nice 1960 eyewitness account of some of the themes you're talking about.

There's really not much scholarly work on that book, but this article comes to mind.
posted by BlooPen at 3:08 PM on April 29, 2010

Bret Easton Ellis? American Beauty? It's been awhile since I read/watched, and boredom isn't specifically mentioned in wiki synopses but I remember thinking of all the main characters that it seemed like their primary drive was "got it all, bored now."
posted by K.P. at 3:15 PM on April 29, 2010

The first thing that jumped to mind was Infinite Jest, but that's more late-century. I'll second Catcher in the Rye, and almost any Updike from that period and maybe even Roth.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 3:17 PM on April 29, 2010

The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson
posted by TWinbrook8 at 3:22 PM on April 29, 2010

The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway.

They drink, and they travel, and they are still so, so bored by their lives.
posted by mmmbacon at 3:27 PM on April 29, 2010

In Cold Blood. Kinda.
posted by tigrefacile at 3:40 PM on April 29, 2010

21st Century, but I recommend Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin. The entire novel is basically stream of bored to the point of agony consciousness.
posted by [citation needed] at 3:40 PM on April 29, 2010

Vonnegut's Player Piano I think has what you're looking for. The world in the novel is set in a time when machines have taken over all of the repetitive tasks people used to do, and the only people who have jobs anymore are the managing engineers. The protagonist is one of these guys, and during the book he gets more and more uncomfortable and bored with his position. He starts to make frequent trips into town where everyone lives and basically just hangs out all day, and makes friends with people who got pushed out by the new machine society. He eventually finds himself at the center of the rebellion against the engineering world. Pretty dece.
posted by phunniemee at 3:51 PM on April 29, 2010

Mrs. Bridge- Evan S. Connell
posted by chatongriffes at 4:01 PM on April 29, 2010

More about addiction than ennui (addiction born from ennui, maybe?), but I've never forgotten Thom Jones' short story 40, Still at Home (brief description here). Dude can't even be bothered to get out of bed to take a leak, fr'chrisake. And what he does when his mom dies -- classic.
posted by Bron at 4:06 PM on April 29, 2010

Thanks for all the great suggestions. Definitely looking for more of the fifties/sixties Sloan Wilson, Richard Yates, John Updike variety. If anyone has any more killer suggestions, bring 'em on!
posted by southvie at 4:24 PM on April 29, 2010

You might want to take a look at Purple America, by Rick Moody. It sprang to mind with unexpected force when I read your question, which made me realize that boredom is a strong driving force in that novel, though I don't know if it's clearly articulated in the text. (The novel itself is not boring.)

Salinger's story Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.

Now I think about it, vast swathes of American film, comics, and literature post-1945, with a shift in gear after the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, there's a certain kind of situation that is played out in many films where one or more of the characters actually welcomes the idea of nuclear destruction, because at least it would be interesting. "Come, friendly bombs!", sort of thing.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 4:31 PM on April 29, 2010

andy warhol's a:a novel
posted by PinkMoose at 5:01 PM on April 29, 2010

Neat topic.

A search for American writers influenced by Anton Chekhov (the king of boredom, although Russian and far too early) leads to John Cheever. Never heard of him myself. Possibly his novel Bullet Park (1969)? - The book deals with the failure of the American dream, spoken in a fable-like tone, in similar vein with Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road and The Great Gatsby.
posted by kitcat at 5:01 PM on April 29, 2010

The Beautiful and the Damned
Generation X
posted by plinth at 5:15 PM on April 29, 2010

search for American writers influenced by Anton Chekhov (the king of boredom, although Russian and far too early) leads to John Cheever.

Oh, duh. How did I not think of that. The classic short story of this genre is Cheever's The Swimmer. (full text)
posted by Nothing... and like it at 5:44 PM on April 29, 2010

(Like Revolutionary Road, "The Swimmer" was also adapted as a film. Unlike Revolutionary Road, the film is excellent.)
posted by Nothing... and like it at 5:50 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Pretty much any of Updike's novels (not just the Rabbit trilogy) are almost perfect evocations of WASP middle-class 20th-century American boredom.
posted by blucevalo at 8:17 PM on April 29, 2010

The Great Gatsby.
posted by gjc at 8:42 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can think of some great post-war examples but sadly they're French and English. The Feminine Mystique comes closest to the era for me, but isn't a novel - I would recommend checking out feminist literature of the period, though. Try the Virago or Persephone backlists. As many of the Great American Novelists are male a domestic perspective is a good one to have. Is there an American equivalent of Willy Russell, or Letter to Brezhnev?

Bit newer, but Tom Perotta's Little Children has possibly every character bored with their life, only some realising it.

Much of Douglas Coupland's work centres around the boredom/alienation created by consumerism and convenience. I think there's a thesis to be written in this kind of boredom - Bret Easton Ellis riffs on it a lot as well.
posted by mippy at 3:25 AM on April 30, 2010

Richard Ford's trilogy about Frank Bascombe is in this territory (The Sportswriter; Independence Day; The Lay of the Land).
posted by Prospero at 3:33 AM on April 30, 2010

The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norton Juster. Don't dismiss it because it's "children's" literature.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 6:49 AM on April 30, 2010

It's not published yet (April 2011), but David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel, The Pale King, is about boredom. In the wikipedia link, you can see links to excerpts from the novel. The excerpt/short story "Wiggle Room" seems right up your alley.
posted by mattbucher at 7:42 AM on April 30, 2010

Oh also, an excerpt (apparently) from The Pale King that deals extensively with boredom is "The Soul is Not a Smithy."
posted by mattbucher at 7:44 AM on April 30, 2010

Benjamin Anastas' An Underachiever's Diary reads like an updated Catcher in the Rye, or a written equivalent of Igby Goes Down.
posted by ifjuly at 9:39 AM on April 30, 2010

Lolita? I know the main character is not American, but it captures an immediately-post WW2 kind of American restlessness pretty well, I think, what with the road trips and all the bizarre, inane distractions set up along the way, as well as the callowness of the celebrity culture and music of the time.
posted by Ouisch at 10:01 AM on May 3, 2010

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