By Katherine Sinayavin
One way to understand boredom is to contrast it with its opposite emotional state: the feeling of engrossment in an activity. I can be reading a book that I find exceptionally captivating: I am not thinking about the fact that I am reading, or what others would think about the fact that I have read this book. Instead, my thoughts are immersed in what is happening in the book to such a degree that a part of me merges with that book: within my thoughts, there exists no conscious separation between my ‘self’ and the book. In contrast, a state of boredom is one of complete division with, or alienation from, anything outside the self. There exists a barrier between the individual and his external experiences, which does not allow him any true immersion in his activities in such a way that leads to solipsism. David Foster Wallace’s short story Good Old Neon portrays such a state of boredom, where the barrier that separates the main character from the world is his extreme self-awareness of his fraudulence.
The protagonist, Neal, begins by stating, “my whole life I’ve been a fraud. I’m not exaggerating. Pretty much all I’ve ever done all the time is try to create a certain impression of in other people” (141). The protagonist is continuously aware that the image he presents of himself is a false one and that it “didn’t have anything to do with who [he] really was inside” (142). The awareness of his fraudulence becomes all-consuming and acts like a lens that frames all of his interactions with the world. Neal decides to see a therapist but is not able to make much progress because his spends many sessions going into incredible detail about his fraudulence—an account that spans multiple pages in the short story—in order to prove to his therapist that he was “at least as smart as [the therapist] and that there wasn’t anything he was going to see about me that I hadn’t already seen and figured out” (143). This situation perfectly highlights how his constant awareness alienates him from the world: it occupies a significant portion of his headspace and also prevents him from receiving the help he may need.
Another example of the barrier formed between the narrator and the world as a result of his fraudulence and his obsession with it is the metaphorical representation of his fraudulence as a statue he is condemned to take care of. Neal attends meditation classes as a potential cure for his fraudulence, yet is able to remain in his calm and still meditative pose longer solely so that his instructor would “continue to see [him] as exceptional and keep addressing [him] by what became sort of his class nickname for [him], which was ‘the statue’” (159). The night after the meditation course ends, he dreams that he takes care of an enormous statue of himself while “the sun and moon go back and forth across the sky like windshield wipers over and over…meaning [he’s] condemned to a whole life of being nothing but a sort of custodian to the statue” (161). The protagonist interacts with the world indirectly through his statue, which represents his fraudulent identity and which acts almost as a buffer between his ‘self’ and the world. Essentially, it was his statue that ‘attended’ the meditation class, while he just made sure the statue looked good for that class. What could it mean to only ever take care of one’s appearance and nothing else? Since there is nothing that genuinely engages him and wholly captures his attention could he, perhaps, be bored?
While he does not state it directly, I believe that Neal is immensely bored in everything that he does. He commonly refers to his condition as “solipsistic” (155): that the world has begun to lose its reality points to the immense gulf between him and the world, which is the complete opposite of the condition described above, where an engaging activity is characterized by one’s merging with a piece of the outside world. In Good Old Neon, the alienation and solipsism is caused by fraudulence and an extreme awareness of it, but it can be caused by many other things as well: the stress of an upcoming exam can act as barrier than prevents one from having a good time at a family gathering; one’s identity as a Star Wars fan prevents him from engaging with an episode of Star Trek; but boredom can also encompass a general state of existence: when the world feels irrelevant and unengaging, and ultimately less real because you can’t find any way to genuinely be a part of it.